How to Keep Your Inbox Under Control

Today's post discusses the master skill for getting your in-box empty and keeping it under control! 

This is the second of the 3 life-changing strategies that I explain in my new presentation The WWW of Mastering Email Overload, covering;  

  1. WHEN to check email, when not to (and why)
  2. WHAT to do with each mail so you handle it only once
  3. WHERE to file, store and archive email for quick and easy retrieval

Mastering the WHAT of Email Overload

One of the biggest productivity problems with e-mail is that we often read the same e-mail message 2, 3, 5 or even 10 times BEFORE taking action on it! Even then, the message is still often left in our in-box! The way to avoid this problem (and the huge amount of extra and unnecessary handling of e-mails) is to make it a rule to handle each message just once. This simple strategy will eliminate as much as 80% of the double-handling of each individual e-mail message. 

The way to do this is simply to make a decision by asking ourselves;  

  1. What is the NEXT action to be taken on this message?
  2. How long will that action take?

Your answer to these two questions will then determine action(s) is needed to process each e-mail. Now, many emails will require multiple actions but the key is to identify the very next single action that we can take (that doesn’t rely on somebody or something else). Simply taking this action keeps the email moving and is often the catalyst to completing further actions needed with the email.

The 4D Methodology

The good news is that there are only ever one of four actions we need to take on any given e-mail, as follows; 

1: Ditch or Delete

If there is no action needed and you don’t need to keep the message, simply delete it (eg: spam, jokes, information you no longer need, etc)

2: Deal with it NOW (less than 2 mins)

If you can take the next action (a reply or forward, update a document, schedule a meeting etc) in two minutes or less, it’s quicker to do it now that the time it takes to store the message, track it, retrieve it, read it, get up to speed on it, make a decision and then do it later. 

3: Delegate

If the next action requires you to delegate the e-mail, you can either forward the message onto the appropriate person, print it and hand it to them physically or (if you’re a good user of Tasks) add it to your Task list and then use the Assign a Task function to e-mail it to them (with the option to keep track of it on your own list). 

4: Decide

If the next action requires the e-mail be relocated somewhere more appropriate, you can do one of three things; 

  • WHERE: If not further action is required but this is an email you must keep (ie: can not delete), you can file it in one of your e-mail folders (eg: Client A,B,C; Subject X,Y,Z; Project 1,2,3), just as you would file a piece of paper or document in a physical filing cabinet/system. Alternatively, you can file the e-mail along with an existing Task, Appointment or Contact that is already in your email software (eg: you can add a meeting agenda or other relevant documents to a meeting appointment that is already in your calendar).
  • WHEN: For e-mails that will take more than 2-5 minutes to process (ie: these are actually tasks which have arrived via e-mail), convert the e-mail to a new Appointment in the Calendar (ie: schedule when you are going to do the work that has arrived via e-mail). Doing this makes you ask yourself three questions:
  1. how long will this take?
  2. when do I have time in my schedule for this?
  3. of the times available, which would be the best time (given all the other workload and commitments I already have?

This mental process gives you much more control of the task – it now sits in the Calendar and comes back to you at the appropriate time (proactive) rather than sitting in the in-box passively waiting for you to stumble across it again (reactive).

  • WAIT: Add to a Waitlist or Watchlist folder as no further action is possible right now (right click on the message to add a reminder if necessary).  

Does the 4D Method Really Work?

This process has been used many time by participants implementing these ideas during a dedicated block of time as part of the Taming the Email Tiger workshop. Here are just a few snapshots of the progress they have made in various workshops;

3204 emails processed by 12 people in 30 minutes

4004 emails processed by 11 people in  30 minutes

9635 emails processed by 8 people in 25 minutes

Why not print out the attached overview of this tip (laminate it perhaps) and keep it close to your keyboard as a reminder till this practice of handling each message only once becomes your established habit? Just click on the image at right to download the attachment.

Get Your Inbox Empty right now!

For those who have too many emails in the inbox to clear in one sitting, here’s how to get your inbox empty right now and then use the 4D method to clear your backlog -

And finally, will you find it easier to focus on making a 4D decision on each email if you are looking at your inbox in a planned block of ‘single-tasking’ time or when you receive the email as an interruption (causing you to multi-task)? This is controlling the WHEN of Mastering Email Overload, as explained in a previous post

In a later post, we’ll discuss how to quickly set up a simplified e-mail folder structure that makes it easier to move e-mails out of the in-box (and find them again quickly later). 

Just let me know if you have questions.

All the best for now!

Steuart Snooks