Inbox (momentarily) zero

There’s this concept of Inbox Zero, where you keep your email inbox actively empty. (Google it).

I fail at Inbox Zero, but I regularly, actively try and keep it small enough to be manageable. Most of what is in my inbox is part of my to-do list. For advertising emails and mailing lists and media monitoring alerts I have automatic filing rules, and sorting rules, and most of the time I can just run my eye over the subject lines of the emails in my 15+ different folders, and hit delete on the entire lot in one fell swoop. However sometimes everything gets overwhelming, and it doesn’t matter how much I flag certain emails in my inbox as something I need to do, and delete emails that I’ve dealt with, it marches up to 1,000+ emails. Again.

I find this oddly stressful – my brain gets overly worried that I’ve missed something vital, despite the unlikeliness of that actually having happened. If I had missed something, it’s highly likely that the requester would have called me, emailed me again or come up to my desk and asked. Ah, irrational guilt. It’s so helpful.

But worry and stress is never logical, so when I reach that point, I do this, and I recommend you do it to:

  • Sort your Outlook inbox by received date.
  • Collapse the sorting so that the only expanded timeframe that is open is the Older category.
  • Move everything in the Older category to a new folder. Any email that you still have to ‘immediately’ action is younger than this is, because if it was truly necessary then someone would have bugged you about it again by now.

Once you have done this, then:

  • Sort the remaining emails in your inbox by sender, by size, by date received, whichever. You’ve instantly cut out a significant number of emails you need to deal with immediately. Revel in this fact.
  • If you sort by name then you can batch delete all those Australian Financial Review daily emails. All those Book Depository emails. All those emails from Reception confirming your meeting room booking that you had not only already put in your calendar, but you’d already had the meeting.
  • If you sort by size you can now delete or file in your workplace’s electronic document management system that whopping 30MB email with those images you don’t need any more because that brochure has been printed. You can deal with that 17MB scan in PDF format for the document you finished last month and had already sent to your client.

It’s all so much less overwhelming. And when your inbox is down to the things you actually need to do, you feel like you can keep it roughly in shape for a few months.

Now, what about those emails you threw in a folder? The reason why you put them in a folder is that now your problem won’t get bigger. It can’t get bigger. You can repeat what you did with your inbox, and delete or file the enormous emails, the advertising emails, the news provider emails, the “hey, it’s Friday night drinks” emails.

You don’t have to deal with all those emails immediately. Pick off 50 at a time. Say “I’ve got 20 minutes before that client comes for her meeting, I’m prepared for the meeting, so I’m going to spend 15 minutes clearing off some of those older emails.”

Because I also have a physical to-do list I have actually written down “650, 600, 550, 500…” and crossed off the numbers as I’ve taken the folder down to that number. It gives you a feeling of satisfaction; everyone loves crossing things off a to-do list.

Incremental decrease in size is still a decrease in size. Don’t let it overwhelm you.

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