A lot of people talk about “inbox zero” – that semi-mythical point where all of your inboxes are empty, your priorities and tasks are all listed somewhere in what David Allen would call a “trusted system”.
At that point, your life is organized….right?
Sure, until…well…five minutes from now. In the next five minutes you’ll get a hundred messages on your Twitter stream, a few dozen Facebook updates from friends, a text message, and half a dozen emails (mostly spam).
Assuming that you have some internal commitment to keep reasonably up-to-date on these things, this creates a backlog. Clearing backlog may give you a good feeling, but it’s generally not useful work.
With that in mind, I figure we should learn to do it as efficiently as possible. More than that, however, we should look at the things that create the backlog in the first place, and see if we can get them under control.
Today we’re going to take a look at email.
Grab An Inbox, And….
I don’t know about you, but I get hundreds of emails per day. Most of them are spam, but there are also several from clients, friends, and other bloggers. I also get payment notifications and other information via email.
For every message, I have to make a decision about what to do with it.
If I’ve never asked to receive the message, and it’s from somebody I don’t know (and don’t want to hear from), I hit the “mark as spam” button in Gmail.
I do not, under any circumstances, use this on communications I’ve asked to receive, or newsletters I’ve subscribed to. “Mark as spam” is not a shortcut for “unsubscribe”, and it’s socially irresponsible to use it as such.
Marking messages as spam helps Gmail learn how to keep spam out of my inbox – which is one of my goals.
Unsubscribe From It
If I get an automated mailing, and I almost never read messages from that company, I try to get off their list.
The “unsubscribe” button is usually right at the top of the message, or all the way at the bottom. I unsubscribe, then try to find any other messages from that list and remove them too.
I’m on a couple of email discussion lists. I filter those into another folder, so I can read them when (and if) I get time. They don’t have the same priority as, say, an email from a close friend.
The thing about filters is they create the potential for huge, unchecked folders full of unread messages. Filters are like storage containers in your house – occasionally useful, but heavily overused.
Every month or two I go through and purge the messages in my filter folders, to prevent them from becoming too large and unwieldy.
When it’s a toss up between filtering and unsubscribing, unsubscribing is usually the better option.
Archiving doesn’t prevent the mail from coming in, but it does get it out of my inbox.
Sometimes it makes sense to keep a copy of a message, but there’s no sense in keeping it in my inbox. I keep copies of most business-related messages, so I can reference them later if necessary. Payment notifications also get archived.
I know people who see archiving as “the next step after reading”. That’s a crazy way to think! I don’t archive something because I’ve read it – I archive it because I believe I may need to reference it in the future.
For example, a notification of a sale at my favorite store may be appreciated when it shows up in my inbox. After the sale is over though, will I ever look at that message again? Really?
The delete button is probably the most underused function in every email program. The things that don’t need to be kept should be tossed, for the exact same reason that unneeded items in your house should be purged.
That’s a no-brainer, right?
Oh, And I Scan My Spam
Occasionally a message I want to receive lands in my spam folder. I go through my spam folder once every day or two, and scan quickly. I look for names or subject lines that jump out at me, and if the spam filter caught something it shouldn’t have I mark them as “not spam”.
Getting Control Again
It sounds like a lot of work, and it can be – at least at first. But I can tell you from my experience that even the largest inboxes can be tamed if you take an extra fifteen minutes a day to plow through them.
I can also tell you that “under control” is a great feeling to have when it comes to your email.
What about you? Do you feel like your email is “under control”? Tell me about your email-related challenges (and successes!) in the comments!
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