Clearing Your Inbox with Minimal Pain

By Narendra Rocherolle

CTRL (or Apple) A and then delete!

Just kidding.

inbox_empty.pngAre you drowning in email? Is your inbox a source of constant low level stress? Over the last year, David Allen’s GTD has completely changed my work habits and I am now a happier, more efficient, less anxious web worker.

My complete system involves a physical inbox and simple file structure, 30 Boxes for my calendar and contextually tagged to do lists, and trusty Apple Mail. Of course, any combination of web or desktop apps will suffice.

I just want to focus on email portion because it is super simple and it works. Here’s a 8-step blueprint for an empty inbox.

1) Abandon crazy filing systems in favor of five folders: -Archive-, -Some Day-, @Computer, @Reply, and Waiting (I use the hyphens to get an alphabetical heirarchy that I like).

2) Parse your Inbox one email at a time.

3) Delete useless email.

4) Any email that describes a fixed event should be added to your calendar. Delete the email unless there is info in it that might be some day recalled. In that case, dump it in Archive.

5) If you can turn the email into an action that you can complete in 2 minutes or less, do it! You can then delete the email (if no longer needed) or drop it in Archive for future reference. Often times you will be replying to an email and then waiting for a response to continue a task or project. In this case, drop the original email (or a BCC’d copy of the reply) in the Waiting folder.

6) An email that requires simply a reply but will take more than 2 minutes (you may not know what you want to say to a friend or business partner at that moment) should be put in the @Reply folder.

7) Email that relates to or describes a task or project requires that you convert it into a next action. If that next action is going to take more than 2 minutes you need to make a quick decision. Is the contents of the email sufficiently clear that as soon as you glance at the email again, you’ll know what to do?

If so, and the result of the email will be some sort of email reply, then you can move the email to @Computer which designates that you have a next action that can be completed while you are at your computer.

Example: your boss emails you to request some research on a competitor. Tip: often times long emails can be painful/inefficient to rescan days later. I use a program called MailTags to annotate a simple one-line next action to the email.

If email is non-essential to the next action, your best bet is to translate it into your to do system and then archive or delete the email. For instance, if I got an email from a business partner suggesting we start looking for new office space, I would look up my real estate agent’s phone number and add “call Bill about real estate options 650-555-8000″ to my 30 Boxes to do list with the tags @Calls and work. That way, the next time I was focusing on work items and had some time to make calls I could easily filter to a list that would let me focus exclusively on what I could do given the context!

8) If after glancing at the email, you decide it isn’t really appropriate at this time but you want to revisit it later, file it in Some Day. When you conduct a monthly review, be sure to step through the email in the Some Day folder in a fashion similar to parsing your inbox.

That’s it. This method is 100% guaranteed. If you like to separate your personal and work items you can double up on folders with: , -Some Day Personal-, Reply Personal, @Computer Personal, Waiting Personal.

When you start your day, it is really easy to pick a mode and rattle through email instead of clarifying and putting it in context over and over which is what happens if you have a string of hundreds of unprocessed emails in your inbox.

How do you get your inbox to empty? Experiences and suggestions are welcome.

Narendra Rocherolle is the co-founder of 30Boxes and Webshots.


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