“Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused.”
– Kevin Kelly, founder of WIRED magazine.
Apprehension, anxiety, unease, dread, flat-out fear…
That is what my inbox was doing to me. Every time I opened it up, my stomach sank. My emails had well and truly started biting back.
For someone who operates an online business, let’s just say that email is kinda-sorta-pretty-damn important. Indeed most people, no matter what their line of work, now rely on email as their main form of communication. A recent study found that the average knowledge worker spends almost 30 per cent of their workweek either writing, reading or responding to emails. That’s a fair old whack of time. And it highlights just how important it is that we learn how to manage our technological tools, rather than have them manage us.
So a few months ago, when my inbox was causing me serious stress, I decided to bite the bullet: I declared email bankruptcy.
Way, way too many emails had been left unsorted and unfinished, and I had to admit the truth: there was no way I could get on top of them. It would have taken a full week of work to organize, categorise and sort out the mess of 8742 (yes, eight thousand seven hundred and forty-two) emails that had made my inbox their permanent home.
Every time I opened up my email, I was confronted with overwhelm and chaos. I dreamed of hitting the ‘delete all’ button, so that I might reach that magical, mythical, oh-so-desirable mountaintop of modern-day achievement: inbox zero.
How did I get myself into this digital mess? Well, I’ve had the same email address for ten years, and – as dumb as it sounds – I never quite figured out how to manage the torrents of communication that stream in there, day after day.
So instead, I didn’t deal with it at all, and every time I would open it up, I’d just get more and more overwhelmed.
Email bankruptcy seemed like the only feasible option.
In an act of supreme liberation, I did the following:
1. I moved every single email into an archive folder.
Except for about five emails that had come in recently and I could action. Everything else: archived.
2. I sat down and thought really hard about my folder structure, and came up with a waaaay better one than what I had.
(Which, let me tell you, wasn’t hard). Along with all the folders that you’d expect to find – business, finance, correspondence, family & friends etc – one of the most useful folders I have now is a ‘Reading’ folder. One of the things that clogged up my inbox the most was the endless newsletters that I receive that I didn’t yet have time to read but didn’t want to delete… So I just failed to action them at all. Now, all newsletters either get read immediately, or moved to ‘Reading’, where I can enjoy them at my leisure. (I also use unroll me, which is awesome.)
Other important (and new-to-me) folders have been my ‘Ideas’ folder, where I can store all the stuff I email to myself before I file it in Evernote or Scrivener etc, my ‘Swipe’ folder, which is a collection of things I’ve been sent which I know that I want to implement myself at some date in the future, and my ‘Back Up’ folder, which is where I store all my back-ups of blog posts, books and client work etc.
3. I resolved to do better next time.
You’ll read heaps of different theories as to the best way to manage your email (and as dumb as it sounds, in hindsight, I wish that I’d actively sought out some training back in my corporate years, ‘cos it would have made life a butt-load easier). Here is what’s been working for me for the past nine months…
1. I don’t open emails unless I have time to action them straight away.
One of the ways I was getting myself into big techno-trouble was opening emails at inappropriate times (read: right before bed, in the two minutes between Skype meetings etc.) and then failing to either action them or capture them to action at a later date. So they’d just sit and chafe in my inbox, ’til I’d accumulated an overwhelming festering mess of thousands.
Now, I am cultivating the discipline to only open emails when I have the time to action them. If the action they require will take less than two minutes, I do it there and then. THERE AND THEN. (No seriously, this has revolutionised my inbox!) If I don’t have time at that moment, then I capture the task on my tasks list (which is another exciting story for another exciting day) THEN AND THERE.
So basically: it’s either action or capture. Right then, right there.
Revolutionary, I tell ya!
2. I file them as soon as they’re actioned.
Duh, I here some of you say. But not me. Aha! is what I say. Loudly. And with gusto.
I file them straight away into the correct folder. And because I sat down at the start and created a really super-excellent file structure (see above!), where they should be filed is immediately apparent and obvious. (The bonus corollary is that should I need to find something, there’s only one place where the email I’m looking for will be, and I can click straight to the correct folder).
3. I leave only the requiring-action-really-soon emails in my inbox.
Which means that my inbox reads like a technological to-do list.
Now, heaps of how-to books will tell you that this is not the ideal way to manage your inbox, but this is what works for me: I like seeing the current issues, actions and tasks straight in front of me whenever I open it up. Horses for courses, I say…
4. I designate an ‘Inbox Liberation’ session weekly.
And by that, I mean I schedule it. Fo’ shiz. ‘Inbox Liberation’ means dealing with any clutter that has clogged my system during the week that has somehow slipped through the cracks and I haven’t managed to clear. Mid-morning on a Thursday is Liberation day, where everything returns to Ground Zero.
And dayumm if it doesn’t feel really, really good.
So basically, this entire system can be boiled down to two points, which apply to clutter of all sorts, whether tangible or technological: A place for everything; and everything in its place.
And, of course, scheduling the time to ensure that this happens.
That’s it. I wish I could have bloody-well figured this out years ago, but I am enjoying the sanity – not to mention, enhanced organisation, enhanced clarity and enhanced efficiency – that has come from figuring it out now.
Better late than never, hey?!
My email is no longer biting me. How’s yours — any tips to tame the beast?!