by Susan McCarthy
I hear time and again about people who have thousands of emails saved in their account. Do you really need to save every email you receive? Probably not, even when work-related.
Often, the individual insists that each email requires an action and so they can’t hit ‘delete’ until they’ve completed the action. But, at some point, the need to act is negated by the time that’s gone by. You can’t accept an invitation to a party that occurred two months ago.
However, not opening the email ignores the most basic action step – view the content so you can see what next action is required.
Productivity expert, David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, tells us that one of the most important (yet overlooked) steps to being productive is to identify the next action you need to take for a project.
What is an email really asking of you? Shop this sale? Set up a lunch date with a friend? Read this article or blogpost? Attend the meeting mentioned in the email? Pay the bill? Learning to identify the next step can reduce your stress because you are no longer dreading the nagging thought that you need to do something.
Identify What's in Your Inbox
Personal Correspondence – Open emails from friends, family, your boss, coworkers. Identify the action they are asking of you and respond, even if to say, “I’m still working on [this section] of the Carver proposal,” or “Let’s meet at the coffee shop this Saturday at 10 a.m.” If the email contains the date for an event or meeting, record the day and time in your calendar and reply (if necessary) that you will attend.
Reference Materials – If an email contains information that you want to hold onto for future reference, create a folder with a specific name (“Carver Proposal” not, “Work”). Filing the information was the next action you needed to take. Don’t leave reference materials in your inbox, which suggests that you haven’t identified what you need to do with the information.
Advertisements – If an email is from a store and you weren’t already planning on purchasing something from the company that day, delete the email. Consider if you could unsubscribe to avoid the one or more daily emails from that business. Unsubscribing to emails doesn’t mean that you’ll never shop at that store or site again.
Spam – Delete obvious and suspected spam. Don’t click on ‘unsubscribe’ if you don’t remember engaging with this person or business (to limit the chance that you’d get a virus from the link).
Articles and Blogposts – If the email links you to an article or blogpost and you don’t have the time to read it now, learn how to create an email folder, label it “To Read” and move those emails into that folder. Then, and this is the most important step, decide when you’ll read them.
If beneficial to you, set an alarm or calendar notification to go off at the designated time you want to read the articles. If you learn a valuable tip or technique, write it down and determine when you’ll act on this next step (to try the technique). Then, delete the email linking you to that article. Set a limit as to how many emails you’ll keep in this folder. If you can read ten blogposts during the designated time, then avoid storing a backlog of twenty or thirty emails linking you to articles you’ll never manage to read.
If you have weeks, months, or even years of past blogposts sitting in your email inbox, delete them and start fresh with the newest articles that will arrive. You can always go to a website to read older articles or blogs.
And, if your interests have changed, unsubscribe from email lists.
Two Steps to a Less Demanding Inbox
ONE: Identify what the next step is (read today’s emails, watch the video, move the article into your ‘to read’ folder).
TWO: Identify when you will _____ (read your emails, watch the video included in the email, read the linked article, take that e-course, etc.).
If you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, there’s no quick and easy way to go through them (beyond hitting ‘select all’ and then ‘delete’). Set a goal number for each day and establish a start and end time for doing the task. Avoid dwelling on past emails that you feel you should have responded to. (If a response is the next action you need to take, then plan to do so.)
While it can be overwhelming to go through so many emails, remember that your reason for tackling this task is to feel calmer when you open your inbox.
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