Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Why is it important to keep a well-ordered inbox? As part of my experiment to help make James even more efficient, I picked working on his inbox as the number one thing and in fact, it's very often the first thing I use to address with anyone that worked for me. But why?
Despite the advent of other communication & collaboration tools like Slack, WhatsApp or Trello, email remains the number one way that people communicate within an organisation, with customers and also suppliers. This means one thing above all else
“It’s the place where the most mistakes are made…”
And that is why it’s always the place I start when looking to help someone get more organised. Are you the person that needs to improve? Let’s see if you answer yes to any of the following
You’ve had to ask someone to resend an email because you cannot find it
You have missed an invite to a meeting that was sent to you
You cannot find a file that was sent to you by email
Your unread email inbox is above 10 at the end of a day
That last one is quite different for a reason. I’ve spoken to people that proudly tell me that they have less than 100 unread emails as if this is ok. If you had a line of 50 people outside your office waiting to come in and tell you something, would that be ok?
If you have more than 10 unread emails at the end of a day, I can tell you now you won’t read some of those emails, EVER. Because 10 grows to 25, which becomes 100 within a couple of weeks. It gets harder and harder to catch up.
Common issues from poorly organised inboxes
Meetings are missed or other diary clashes happen
Invoices are not issued on time, or ever, in some cases. Money just sitting in your inbox
Bills not getting paid, putting at risk the service you are getting
You might actually get a good offer for something you are after and miss it
You become a bottleneck and cause someone else’s work to go wrong
Bad decisions are made because you haven’t read all the available information
There are normally two main reasons why people have poorly maintained inboxes - you are treating it as a storage platform or using it as a to-do list planner.
So how do we stop these preventable habits? It’s a two-step process. Firstly, clean up your current mess, then prevent it from happening again.
Step 1 - Fix the current problem
Whether you have 8,000 unread emails or 80, the following mechanisms will work.
Work in reverse order. You’ll find if you start with the oldest emails first, it will work faster. You will be more ruthless with older emails and it will get you in a rhythm for deleting things you don’t need
Create email folders, your inbox is NOT a storage device. As I’ve already said, part of the problem is people keep emails ‘just in case’ they need to find something later on. Follow these rules as you go through your backlog
If there is a file attached you might need, then save it into a system folder and delete the email.
If you think you might need the email at a later date to remind you of what someone said, then file it in a subfolder and get it OUT of the inbox. You can search subfolders just as quickly as you can your inbox
Delete promotional emails without looking at them. If you’ve still got an email from your favourite retailer from 3 months ago, it won’t have anything meaningful in it. Don’t waste time reading it, just immediately hit delete - avoid distraction
Talking of unread promotional emails from 3 months ago - let's start unsubscribing those as we go along. Whatever the reason for you not opening these emails (not compelling, you are too busy etc…) the reality is you really don’t need to get them every week. If I cannot persuade you to do that yet, then when we get to step two, I’m going to be encouraging you to switch them to a different email address
If you find an email from a colleague that needs a response, here’s a novel ideal - respond to them! Sorry, but I get sick of hearing excuses about people being too busy to respond right now. Chances are you are holding up someone else from doing their work. Stop being selfish and give them a response. It will help them and it will clear your inbox
If you find an email that requires you to do an action, then add it to your to-do list. Your inbox is not the place for it. It is not the place for reminders. Get it on a to-do list and delete the email
Step 2 - Don’t let the problem return
I know from experience people do ‘spring cleaning’ on their inbox, get it under relative control and then within a month, it's getting out of hand again. This is because they are not following some basic rules that could stop this.
Ok, let's start easy - stop signing up for EVERYTHING. You don’t need to get the latest offers for that niche vegan bakery in Munich, if you get the urge just go and look at their website
Next, if you sign up to get an offer code, then either unsubscribe once you’ve used the offer or utilise your junk email address (more on that shortly)
As emails arrive, be honest and decide if you really need them. If they are ones you delete swiftly or rarely open, then the better option is to unsubscribe now
Managing email addresses. People have an average of 1.8 email addresses (odd how they manage that 0.8 inbox, but anyway). If you look at people in the work age bracket, this will be higher. The efficient person should have three, possibly four. Separate out work and personal email - if you are going to lose control of one inbox, let it be your personal one. Have one that is for work-based email. A second one for promotional emails, for retailers etc… and then another one for junking stuff, for example signing up to get a free report or an offer code. Others might have a content email address where they send all industry news to
Check your email at specific times of the day. I actually don’t advocate constantly checking emails, I normally suggest going in 3 times a day and dealing with them, a maximum of 10 minutes each time, normally less. You are focused and make streamlined decisions
Remember when I said your inbox is not a to-do list manager, well I meant it. Don’t see an email and then say you’ll come back and deal with it later, leaving it in the inbox as a reminder. Note the action you have to do in an actual to-do list planner (more on those in a couple of weeks), file the email in a relevant folder if you really need to keep it and keep the inbox clear. It is NOT a to-do list
Never end the day with unread emails. You might not have the time to deal with them all, but at least check them. When you wake up you will definitely have more unread emails, so don’t make them harder to deal with by leaving some overnight
Follow these rules and I promise you’ll never go back to a stuffed inbox that’s stressing out your life, making you inefficient and potentially costing you money.
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