Cleaning out your inbox is a task that most of us throw on our I’ll-tackle-that-later-list — right between filing bank statements and organizing junk drawers. But why?
Because humans are hard-pressed to do anything unless they see an upside.
Here’s a reason to make inbox organization a high-priority: it will make you a happier, more peaceful, more productive human being.
In a study conducted by Radicati a few years back, researchers predicted that the average worker would send and receive about 125 emails a day by the year 2015. That’s about 45,625 emails a year, including “graymail,” but not including personal email. So, if you have friends, you can go ahead and bump that number way up.What does that add up to time-wise?
In 2012, a McKinsey & Company report found that people spend about 28% of the work week reading and answering emails. That’s roughly 12 hours a week. I don’t know about you, but if I could cut that number in half, I’d have way more time to go to yoga.
But it’s about more than freeing up your time. I believe your inbox is a representation of your state of mind. And cleaning it out is really about the peace that comes along with defeating mental clutter.Once you start thinking about email in this way, you suddenly see the importance of getting your inbox under control.Here are some steps to get you started:
1. Ask Yourself The Hard Questions. You might be wondering what self-reflection has to do with your inbox. Everything, really. The outer is a representation of the inner. Thinking of your inbox as a reflection of your state of mind, start by asking yourself why you’ve let your inbox get out of control and what other things might be making your feel out of control in your life. The answer might be as simple as being overbooked or as serious as avoiding a much-needed career change.Identifying and facing those issues can the most difficult part of the whole process. Answer yourself honestly, and you’ll be mentally and emotionally prepared to tackle the task.
2. “RDFS” Your Unread Emails. In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life, Anne Lamott recalls how as a child, her brother was once overwhelmed by a school project about birds. Her father told her brother to take the project “bird by bird” so he would not be intimidated by the huge task ahead. You may have a daunting number of unread emails to go though. You must do it bird by bird. Don’t think about being done, just peck away at your inbox little by little remembering that you are committing to this task for your mental well-being. Seeing each email as all having a purpose makes getting rid of them feel like you’ve accomplished something.”RDFS”-ing is an easy way to do that. I adapted this nifty acronym from a former boss of mine who told me that every new email requires one of four actions: respond immediately, delete without responding, follow up or save for future reference.Knowing that you only have four choices for every new email will diffuse feelings of indecision and helplessness, cut down the time it takes to sort your unread emails and increase your productivity. As you go through all 5,000 of your unread emails (or whatever your number is…no judgement here) a large chunk of them may fall into the “follow up” or “save for future reference” category, but that’s why an important next step is to get an organization system in place that works for you.
3. Organize What’s Left. It never ceases to amaze me how wooed we are by the promise of organization. Google’s brand new email service called Inbox employs an “email as a to-do list model.” It allows you to sort emails into “pinned,” “snoozed” or “done” categories and collects large numbers of emails into “bundles” to make inbox clutter more manageable. Yes, it’s really user-friendly, but don’t be seduced by it’s slickness. You don’t need to have it get your inbox clean. There’s no magic life hack that’s going to make this process any easier.But here’s the good news: there is a fool-proof formula. Decluttering your inbox simply requires developing a system and keeping consistent with it. If you can commit to that, you’re golden.Here’s how I do it: I use one Gmail inbox for all my mail, and after I’ve “RDFS”-ed my new emails, I archive my “save for future reference” emails using Gmail’s folders, which can be color coded and nested. If an appropriate folder doesn’t exist, I create a new one. I have 65 active folders at the moment. (Most email servers can perform a similar function if you don’t use Gmail.) Then, I address my “follow up” emails, which I keep in my inbox (I try never to let that number get over 100, because I know it personally makes me feel overwhelmed). If those “follow up” emails require an action on my part, I create a “task” in Google Calendar (ex: “Pick a place for lunch with Lisa” or “Send Excel spreadsheet to my boss”) and add a due date to that task so I’ll get a reminder if necessary. That way I don’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what I forgot to do. Seriously, it’s worth the good night’s sleep.Challenge yourself to develop your own organization protocol. Any method that’s comfortable and sustainable for you will work if you stick to it.
4. Tackle The Big Rocks First. According to Stephen Covey who wrote The 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People, the “big rocks of life” are the tasks that if you don’t put first, you’ll never get to them at all. Yet, they are often the most important. And when we avoid them, they weigh heavily on us mentally and emotionally.When you apply the big rock metaphor to email, you can see how easy it is to spend the majority your time online tackling tiny grains of sand — urgent emails that require immediate attention and give us the illusion of productivity — and put off the big rocks — emails that require us to seriously think or do. The longer those big rocks get de-prioritized, the more anxiety-provoking they become for us. Diffuse potential stress by making a vow to tackle the big rock emails first. Always. It may seem counter-intuitive to address the harder, more time-consuming inbox items first, but taking the time to figure out what those emails require of you will save you time and stress in the long run.Moments after you exhale, feeling your shoulder tension release, admiring your pristine inbox, it will start filling up again. Such is life. But don’t get overwhelmed — the deep clean is done, and that’s the hard part. Maintaining is the easy part now that you have a fool-proof system in place. I speak from experience when I say that the productive days and peaceful nights will be all the motivation you need to keep your inbox from ever getting cluttered again.