“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”
~ Stephen R. Covey ~
"But all things should be done decently and in order."
~1 Corinthians 14:40 (ESV) ~
As we continue to put our priorities in order, we find tasks that feel urgent, but are not the most important. These can feel tricky to deal with, but the best way to manage them is to carve out specific times to do those things, and leave them in those slots, rather than letting them bleed into other parts of life. I firmly believe processing email is one of those things. It is important to sort and answer it, but let’s not let it take over our day. Keep in mind as you make changes and work out your own best way to do this, you don’t have to be perfect. Do your best and make progress. Here are some insights I’ve gained to get you started.
A Zero Inbox is Not the Goal
As you organize and sort out your inbox, remember that having no messages left to read is not the point. The main thing is to clear your inbox of unprocessed messages and only leave ones that you’ve opened and still need to do something with. I recommend keeping maximum twenty emails in your main inbox, making sure that they are ones that you still need to do something with (research and get back to someone, send a file, etc.). A simple way to keep from being inundated in your main inbox is to make a junk email where you subscribe to things, get coupons, enter contests, etc. That will keep things clutter-free and keep your fun emails all in one place so you can deal with them separately, no more than once a week.
Your Inbox is Not a Filing System
As you get rid of the clutter, you may notice that you have some emails with attachments. It is important to not rely on your email as a place to keep files, but to put them on your computer or an external disk. This way you won’t be opening your email to rifle through for an important document, trying to rack your brain for what category it was under. In this vein, do your best to leave your inbox alone until it’s time to process it. That means it shouldn’t linger in another tab or window. Keep it closed. That way, when you sit down to process it, you won’t forget about an open email you thought you had responded to. I advocate for a “one-touch” processing system. This means you open every email and make a decision. The process will look like this:
Only Process Emails at Specific Times
An effective way to make sure that you are managing your emails rather than your email managing you is to time-block your email processing time. (Time-blocking is another productivity method that I’ll share about another time, but it basically means set aside a specific time for something, set a timer, and get to it), Don’t allow it to permeate other times or run over the time that you’ve set). Decide whether you are going to process your email two or three times every day. This depends largely on the amount of email you get, but also the level of urgency in replying to whomever you are corresponding with. For entrepreneurs, we sometimes feel that we have to answer as quickly as possible. In lieu of this, it may be beneficial to set up an outgoing message reply to all emails that states that you received the message, that you check email at the beginning and end of the workday (or three times a day, whatever is true for you), that their email is important to you, and that you will get back to them promptly. That way, when you do answer their message at noon or 4pm or what have you, they will not be wondering if you received or read it.
Quick recap. Remember, your email is not a filing system, and you need to be filing important documents somewhere else. Leave your inbox closed until it’s time to process. Time-block your email processing time twice or three times a day. Create an outgoing message that reflects your processing times, so that people know you will get to their messages. Use a one-touch processing system. And remember, a zero inbox is not the goal; peace and order is. Remember to make progress, not expect perfection. The best part is that you will be managing your messages instead of them managing you. And there you go! Feel free to adopt what works for you and modify what doesn’t. I hope this makes your life simpler and keeps the important and urgent tasks separate, where they belong.