How to protect yourself from the surge of emails, clean out your Inbox and develop better habits for 2012.
As you forge into 2012 with a gargantuan number of emails messages, it’s time to do something drastic — consider an Extreme Inbox Makeover.
Like many of you, I feel I could get much better at dealing with email. My Inbox holds a deluge of correspondence tallying up to more than 2,000 emails. Sorting through it affects my productivity — one quick peek can lead to toiling in email land for hours.
But it’s a new year and that means opportunity to start over. The experts advise we start 2012 by walking away from all prior email buildup and wiping the slate clean — sort of.
Just like cleaning out the garage, we need to purge, sort and develop better habits to prevent the mess from reappearing.
The first step is paring back. Productivity expert Audrey Thomas of OrganizedAudrey.com suggests holding onto email from December 2011 and January in our active Inbox. Then, she wants us to create a file folder for July through November 2011 and another for January to June 2011. Messages from 2010 get slid into a file folder and anything prior gets deleted, she says.
Marketing strategist Arminda “Mindy” Figueroa shivers at the thought of hitting delete. Like me she suffers from the “just in case” syndrome. She will hold on to an email in her inbox just in case she may need to reference or forward it months later.
“Right now I have 12,166 emails,” she confesses to me. “I think all are important to keep.” Figueroa, president of Latin2Latin Marketing & Communications in Fort Lauderdale, spends two hours every morning reading email from clients across the country before she even gets to the office. “I did get rid of 20,000 emails before the holidays. That’s a huge accomplishment. I’m taking baby steps to getting better.”
Thomas brings to my attention that even if we dig up an email older than 2010, it typically has outdated information. We can find more current information through Linked In or Google. And, if we’re worried about losing a contact, she suggests creating an electronic contact for categories — such as graphic designers, home contractors, etc. Also, most of us subscribe to newsletters we delete without opening. To cut back on inbox clutter, the new year is an ideal time to unsubscribe.
Of course, a makeover requires new email habits.
“Every email is decision waiting to be made,” Thomas says. “You need to become a good decision maker. When you read an email and go to the next and don’t make a decision, at end of the day you’ve read 73 emails and they are still sitting there, cluttering your inbox. Now you have to re-read them.”
Tackle email by replying on the spot to any that will take two minutes or less to address. Don’t even file them away. Just get them out of the way immediately with a brief and to the point response. Experts say half of emails can be deleted once read. Where we tend to falter is using our Inbox as a filing cabinet or to-do list, and that’s how important meetings or action steps get overlooked. Often, I rely on the search function of my inbox to track down a message from months ago. “You can cut the search time in half if you make a decision on messages right away,” Thomas says.
Productivity experts suggest using file folders. I’ve discovered that how many folders and what you name them can get extremely personal. “You need to set up something that works for YOU,” says Lorena Prime, founder of Clearly Organized. “There is no one solution that works for everybody, so you can try several ideas and see what works. Tweak your methodology until you’re happy with it and it becomes automatic.”
Tech blogger Gina Trapani uses a three-folder system. Follow-up — for messages you have to respond to or act on that will take longer than a couple of minutes. (There’s a corresponding item on her to-do list for each of these messages.) Hold — for messages that involve something she is waiting on to happen, like a package shipment or event invitation. (There’s a corresponding item on her calendar for each of these messages.) Archive — for messages she’s done with but wants to keep for reference.
Kathy Koch, president of Ambit Advertising in Fort Lauderdale, creates folders for each client, each organization she participates in and a personal and family folder. She also has a folder for newsletters or weekend reading and one for emails she may want to share. She only keeps 12 months of email in her inbox. “I’ve become much more ruthless about deleting,” Koch says.
Elizabeth Bowman, a productivity consultant who heads Innovatively Organized, has a “phone calls” folder for calls that need to be made, an “in office” folder for messages with tasks to complete at her desk, an “end of day” folder for bigger tasks and a “read later” folder for articles or newsletters that aren’t time sensitive.
Regardless of what folder system you use, maintenance is critical. Instead of constantly scanning and reacting to email arriving, process messages in batches. Then when it’s time to deal, fully commit yourself to processing new messages. Thomas says allot 10 “focused” minutes to clear your inbox and 25 minutes on Friday.
When creating folders, expert say keep it simple and purge those you don’t use anymore.
“If you create 40 file folders, you have to scroll to find the right one and you may end up leaving the message in your inbox,” Thomas says. Of course, there are filters, flags and all sorts of other tools available in the various programs to presort and mark emails BEFORE they land in your Inbox.
Thomas says your goal should be to leave work on Fridays with less than one screen full of emails. It’s still January, but I’m off to a good start — for now, my unruly inbox has been tamed.