Avoiding inbox insanity: 3 tips to cut the electronic clutter and communicate more clearly

I wrote this column for today’s Inside Indiana Business “Inside Edge” Newsletter. What tips do you have for taking control of your inbox?

The recently announced launch of Google’s Priority Inbox was welcome news for Gmail users. Thanks to this new feature, Gmail will automatically determine which of your messages deserves priority status, based on an algorithm that “learns” which messages you read and who and what you respond to. This feature is just the latest innovation stemming from email’s growing importance in the workplace. Now, as our “paper flow” moves online, our virtual inboxes serve as our communication hub, and many of us—even those whose offices appear organized—are consumed by electronic clutter.

Priority Inbox will help alleviate some of this, but what about those who don’t use Gmail, or those Gmail users who need even more help? How can we master our email inboxes so we can spend less time searching for messages and more time getting things done? Here are four keys to avoiding inbox insanity, regardless of what email provider you use:

1. Go offline. This may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to cut email clutter is to check messages just a few times a day, letting emails accumulate in the background while you work uninterrupted. Then, when you go back online, deal with each message one at a time, deleting, delegating, or filing, saving only those that demand action you can’t take immediately. It may seem like you’d always be trying to catch up, but going offline is absolutely essential to staying focused and not letting email consume you. You may also fear that you’ll miss an important email, but you’ll find there’s very little that can’t wait until you go back online. And if something comes up that’s truly urgent, just make sure your important contacts can reach you by phone. Try it for an hour, then two hours, then three, and you’ll quickly realize that you’ve been giving email far too much control over your day.

2. Use the one-screen rule. You know the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”? When you have more messages in your inbox than you can view on one screen, it’s time to clean house so that nothing gets forgotten. A good electronic filing system lets me retain thousands of other messages, but in a manner that’s much easier to navigate because items are sorted by client and project. Right now I have 16 messages in my inbox, and unless I’m out of the office for a few days, that’s about as many as I ever want to have. I find that once it grows beyond that number, I spend too much time searching for and rereading messages, which duplicates efforts and wastes time. Compare this to a physical inbox on your desk. What would happen if it contained 50 items? 100? 1000? Not only would “out of sight” lead to “out of mind”—it would be out of control. Be just as diligent in managing your email inbox as you would a stack of papers on your desk.

3. Redeploy messages as calendar/to-do list items. A common fear among those with overburdened inboxes is that they’ll forget a message once it’s moved. The problem is that many messages require action that can’t be taken immediately, so we get paralyzed and treat the inbox as a safety net, when in fact it’s more like a snare. That’s why a calendar and a to-do list are a crucial part of your email management strategy. Instead of leaving messages that require future action in the inbox, move them to a to-do list when they are ongoing, and to the calendar when they occur on a specific date or time. In fact, once you redeploy an email as a calendar or to-do list item, you’ve moved it to a place where it’s even more aligned with action, and much less likely to be lost.

In addition to decreasing frustration and increasing your productivity, there are additional benefits to mastering your email inbox. With fewer distractions, you’ll see your creativity soar and you’ll communicate more clearly—which in itself can help reduce the number of messages in your inbox. Rarely has the phrase “less is more” been more accurate.

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