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Managing Your E-mail Inbox

I tweeted earlier today that I managed to achieve “Inbox Zero” (an empty e-mail inbox) while at a major industry conference (I’m in Spain for VMworld EMEA). A follower on Twitter asked if I would share my “inbox secret”. It’s not a secret, really, but I thought I’d share it here just in case others are interested in trying to emulate a similar methodology (or are just interested in getting control of your e-mail inbox).

First, you’ll need some infrastructure:

  • Get yourself some sort of “to do” system. I don’t care if you use Getting Things Done (GTD), or just make notes in a plain text file—but find a system and use it. I mean, really USE it. Be ruthless in putting your actions (tasks, “to do’s”) in the system. Personally, I use OmniFocus, but ultimately you’ll need to find the right tool that works for you.

  • Determine an archiving strategy. In other words, what are you going to do with e-mails that have information you might need later, but don’t represent something you need to do? There are a variety of strategies here; some people have a complex hierarchy of folders while others just dump all their messages into one big archival folder. Personally, I use a time-based approach—I archive messages I might need later into an annual folder. So, I have folders for 2012, 2011, 2010, etc., all the way back to 2004.

  • (Optional, but recommended) Find an automation tool. What do I mean by “an automation tool”? You’re looking for some sort of macro/scripting tool that can help streamline common tasks for you. Simply creating (or customizing) some keyboard shortcuts within your e-mail application might be sufficient. Personally, I use AppleScript and a tool called FastScripts to allow me to execute those scripts via application-specific or global keyboard shortcuts.

Once you’ve accomplished those three tasks, then we get to the actual work of managing your inbox. Here’s how it works. For every message that comes into your inbox, one of four things happens (this is your DECISION TREE):

  1. If the message represents something you can do and get done in just a few minutes (a quick reply or an action you can complete), do it and then delete or archive the message.

  2. If the message represents something that will take some additional time (a more lengthy reply or an action/series of actions that will take time to complete), create a task/“to do” entry in your system and then delete or archive the message.

  3. If the message represents something that is not an action but contains information you might need later, archive it.

  4. If the message doesn’t match any of the above rules, delete it.

It’s really a simple system, but it requires discipline. You have to school yourself not to use your inbox as a task/“to do” system—that’s why you find/use a system. And finding an automation tool (as I suggested) helping remove friction or resistance to the system by making it easier to archive messages or create task/“to do” actions. For example, using FastScripts, I have a single keyboard shortcut (Ctrl-Cmd-A) to archive a message to the current year’s archive folder. So, when I’m done with a message in my Inbox—after I’ve responded or created an action—I can archive it with a quick keyboard shortcut.

Hopefully some of this information helps. Feel free to speak up with additional tips, suggestions, or questions in the comments below.

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