To avoid inbox insanity, start treating email more like postal mail

SPOILER ALERT: For those attending next week’s “Get Organized!” session at the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, this is one of several points I’ll make about how to rethink email to avoid inbox insanity. If you’re not attending, or you don’t mind hearing it twice, read on.

"Mailbox" by mrjoro on Flickr

"Mailbox" by mrjoro on Flickr

If you want to manage email more effectively, look no further than its antecedent, postal mail.

Let’s consider how most of us deal with postal mail. We:

1. Get home at the end of the day and pull into the garage.

2. Walk down the driveway and open the mailbox.

3. Grab the mail, go inside, and sort it into next actions: bills go in the “deal with it later at the computer” pile; an invitation might get placed near the computer, too, so you can add it to a calendar; catalogs that you want go in the reading pile; catalogs you don’t want and other junk mail goes in the trash; and things you’re not sure what to do with go either in the reading pile or the “deal with it later at the computer” pile. At that point, we haven’t done everything we need to do with our mail, but the work of reading the mail is done. Our mailbox is empty and waiting for the next delivery.

Now what would it look like if we dealt with postal mail the same way most of us deal with email? We would:

1. Get home at the end of the day and pull into the garage.

2. Walk down the driveway and open the mailbox.

3. Be immediately confronted with a pile of mail from past days with the new stuff on top. Sigh.

4. Grab the mail and look at it. Since we can’t pay bills now, we’d put them back in the mailbox. Since we can’t read that catalog now, we’d put it back in the mailbox. Since our calendar isn’t located right there we’d put the invitation back in the mailbox so we can deal with it later. We’d delete the catalogs we don’t want and other junk email, but the things we’re not sure what to do with would go back in the mailbox, too. Altogether, we would have taken action with only a fraction of the items that were delivered, and we’d have to make sense of it again at some point in the future. The work of reading the email is far from done. Our mailbox is full, and the next delivery promises more to come. Sigh.

Now, it’s true that we get email “delivered” more than once a day, and most of us couldn’t get away with checking it just once a day. But postal mail still provides some great lessons in the way we should handle email. The key is getting email out of the inbox by identifying next actions immediately. That doesn’t mean you need to take the next action immediately–you just need to identify it. And that’s pretty easy since there are only five possible choices:

  • Tasks that are ongoing and need to performed by a certain date–bills that need to be paid, for example–go on a to-do list.
  • Tasks that have to be performed on a certain date–that invitation, for example–go on a calendar.
  • Junk mail gets deleted. Done and done.
  • Items that go to someone else get delegated–and added to your to-do list if you have to track them or follow up.
  • And if a message requires no immediate action, but you may need to reference it later, it should be filed.

That’s it–five possible actions. That should make it easy to apply the same logic to email that you use when sorting through postal mail at your kitchen counter.

So, why don’t we treat email the same way we treat postal mail? There are two primary reasons:

1. As I mentioned yesterday, we fool ourselves into thinking we have infinite space in our email inbox. We’d never do that with postal mail, though, because we only have so much room for it to accumulate. The answer, then, is to give yourself a maximum number of messages that you’ll let accumulate in your inbox. Maybe one screen worth. Maybe 10. Maybe 5. (The lower the number, the better.)

2. We don’t have a system for dealing with email. As Merlin Mann says:

[T]he problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.

If you want to learn more about creating a system for your email, consider attending next week’s “Get Organized!” session at the Chamber. I’ll talk about the five tools that are must-haves in any system, along with some additional strategies for changing the way you think about, and deal with, email. You’ll also hear from two other presenters who will help you understand how to organize your physical work space and delegate more effectively so you can focus, communicate more clearly, be more productive, and ultimately do your best work. You don’t want to miss this one. I hope to see you there!

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