Spark Your Systems: Managing email

Quick.  Go open your email inbox.  How many emails are waiting for you there?  Not the new ones. I mean period.  How many emails are in your inbox?

So, here’s a little truth about me:  a full email inbox gives me a wee bit of anxiety.  Okay, actually it’s a major stressor.  I resisted a smart phone for awhile but when I finally got one, my favorite thing about it was that I could constantly check in, clean up, and deal with my email.

And because email is such a major part of how I do my work, it is important for me to stay on top of it.  Today, I am sharing my email organization hacks in case they are helpful to you.

Step 1.  Manage what comes in.  How many email lists are you on?  A lot of our email clutter comes from places where we’ve made a purchase and then they roll us over to their email list that sends a daily marketing pitch.  For the next week, make a commitment to immediately unsubscribe from anything you don’t want to be getting any more.  Deliberately reducing what you have to process, delete, click on, etc. will do wonders for your productivity and diminish that overwhelmed feeling that come over you (me) when you open your inbox and it starts downloading everything that is floating out in the ether for you.

Step 2.  Manage what you already got.  The essential organizing principle of my inbox is this:  My inbox is a to do list.  I do not keep anything in my inbox for fun.  The only thing that stays in my inbox is something that requires an action.  If no action is required, it cannot stay in my inbox.  Even if it is the sweetest note I have ever received.  I love that note. I am grateful for it.  But after I write a sweet note back to the sender, I decide how I want to save that note.  Maybe it gets printed and put into a box of tender things I keep in the Sugar Shack.  Maybe it gets stored in my “PERSONAL” file in my email.  It will be treasured in some way, just not in my inbox.

So, if you love the idea of having an email inbox that just reflects to do items, then you have to start by sorting out your current inbox situation.

Think back to that number of emails in your inbox.  Let’s say it is 888.  What do you do about that crazy number of emails?

A.  Delete everything that you can.  Put aside some time to go through a big chunk (or all) of those emails.  If you can’t go through them all today (perhaps you have 4732 emails in your inbox), choose a number to go through each day (100 a day, for example).  As you go through them, delete everything possible.

B.  File everything else that you are keeping for information or inspiration.  Just like you would in a file drawer, create folders in your email system that allows you to file things away where you can easily find them.  Some examples of mine are Accounts (this is where confirmation emails go when I order something), Personal (where those sweet notes go along with other things like pictures I am emailed), Parenting (notes from preschool I need to keep, parenting ideas I want to remember, etc), Apple (all things related to my computer), Blog, Business Office, College Visits, a folder for each magazine/website I’ve ever written for, a folder for each book, Circle de Luz, etc.  I often visit my folders to recall details about something so I appreciate that the older emails are close by for reference without having them overwhelm me in my inbox.  To get to what I need easily in a folder, I use the search feature and just type in a phrase or name linked to what I need.

So delete and file like crazy and do some everyday, if needed, until all that is left in your inbox is stuff that needs an action.

Step 3.  Take action.  So you have deleted and filed everything you can and now you are down to, let’s say, 122 emails.  And they each need you to reply, read, or do something else.  Well, get started.  If your inbox is still not down to a really manageable number, you now have to get to work.  Choose a number (we’ll go with 10 here for example’s sake) that you are going to address each day and do it.  Meanwhile, stay on top of everything new that comes in that day.  Make a commitment that no more than X number of new emails can sit unaddressed right now.  Maybe 3.  Seriously, I know this sounds ridiculous and totally hard-nosed but really setting and following rules (as long as life allows), for me, is what keeps the email overwhelm in check.  So, everyday, do the work you need to do to knock your email down to a really manageable level.

Step 4. Set up an upper limit.   In life, an upper limit is a bad thing (this is a future post, I hope), but in email management, an upper limit is a good thing.  Once you have your email in fighting shape, it is time for you to choose an upper limit.  The upper limit represents the point you won’t let it go past without some serious intervention.  For me, it is 20.  Near the end of the day, if my inbox is over 20, I have to deal with some things right then.  No putting it off.  Decide what your upper limit is– 10, 20, 25, 50 (I wouldn’t recommend more than 50) and work everyday to always keep your upper limit at a little bit of a distance.

How do you manage your email?  Do you treat your inbox like a to do list?  What are your best strategies for managing email (for example, do you only answer emails for a certain amount of time each day or at certain times?)?


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4 responses to “Spark Your Systems: Managing email”

  1. Adah

    I whole-heartedly agree that having “dangling” mail is hard to sleep on. I can’t do it without forcing myself to. Having said that, I have 10,349 messages in my Inbox! But in my defense, Gmail allows me to label my emails with custom tags, which I faithfully do (and makes for easy, easy retrieval). They don’t get put away into folders, but I can look at everything with a specific label all at once if I want to. I also use a feature that separates Unread emails out from the rest and presents them to me above the rest of the messages in my inbox, regardless of date received. If I read an email and want to keep it on my to-do because I haven’t addressed it yet, I mark it as unread and it stays in the list of unread messages at the top of my inbox. I don’t use the archive feature, because it seems redundant to the unread messages feature.

    I also don’t have a huge number of emails that come to me each day. I can read them, process the information mentally, respond and/or tag them appropriately and go on with my other business without too much disruption.

    I love Gmail, though. It is so intuitive for me.

  2. Carley

    Hi, Professor Molinary!
    Thanks for the post! Email management has been something I’m struggling with this semester…I get so many emails a day it makes my head spin! I think the most important thing I did was set up a forwarding account–I was using one account for school, one for my internship, and one for my personal. Now, I just get them all in one place and can deal with them instead of having to log onto multiple accounts. Seems like common sense, I know, but I have been playing that game for a year or two now.
    Also, unsubscribing from ads feels GREAT.

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