How to Better Manage Your Email Inbox

I love a good apocalypse story: Pandemics, cyborgs wreaking havoc, the nuclear Holocaust films of the 1980s, and … of course, the ubiquitous zombie takeover.

Even though the award-winning zombie show The Walking Dead is filmed in my home city of Atlanta, and even though one of the stars of that show lives in my subdivision (seriously, he does), there is an apocalypse that hits even closer to home. It is pervasive. It is terrifying. And, unlike the zombies that invade northern Georgia in The Walking Dead, this threat is all too real.

It is … my inbox.

Day after day they come, an unstoppable mix of meeting requests, meeting updates, meeting recaps, social media invitations, client questions, requests to help African diplomats stuck in Zimbabwe (for a sizable return on my investment), and offers to enlarge body parts that I don’t even have! Yet, I learned to survive this doomsday machine and, in this article, I am sharing my survival guide with you.

Survival Tip 1: Keep the Inbox Empty

You may have heard many experts tell you that you should not leave the office at the end of the workday with a single email in your inbox. Accepting their sage advice, I tried to do this for years, and failed to make it happen. My intentions were good, but my methodology was bad until a few years ago when I stumbled on a book by David Allen, Getting Things Done. In the book, Allen coaches his readers to respond to incoming emails throughout the day (each and every email) by doing one of the following:

Deleting It. If the email does not require any action and you have no intention of reading it again in the future, simply delete it and move on. Though this one is pretty simple, there are still some best practices.

If the email is auto-generated, such as a newsletter, create a rule to automatically route the email to a subfolder (see Survival Tip 2). If the email is unsolicited and unwanted, take a few extra seconds to unsubscribe. If there is no unsubscribe option, take just a few more seconds to create a rule to automatically delete emails from that sender in the future.

For all emails you delete, I recommend retaining them in your Deleted Items folder. Your database size will swell over the years. However, concerns about database scalability are, for the most part, no longer relevant, and the benefits of documenting each and every email you receive are worth having a 10GB+ data file. If the file size becomes an issue, or if it just bothers you on principle, you can always export older Deleted items in a wide range of formats (.csv, .pst, .txt) to keep the size of your files reasonable and still ensure there are no gaps in your documentation.

Doing It. If the email requires action on your part, if the action requires less than 5 minutes to complete and if the action does not cause you to be distracted from higher priorities, just do it and clear it from your inbox. And, as much as possible, document your action in a reply to the sender so you have a record of when and what you did. As with your Deleted Items, you should permanently store sent items for future reference.

Delegating It. If someone else in your organization can handle the task and if it is appropriate to hand it off to that person, forward the email and get it out of your inbox. If possible, I recommend routing the email through a task management system, such as a CRM solution, and assigning the task to the person. Routing emails in this way will facilitate collaboration with, rather than simply delegation to, your co-workers.

Deferring It. If the email is valuable, but not immediately actionable, you can defer it to a future date. When deferring emails, I recommend the following categories:

  • Emails that involve actions that you must perform on (or by) a specific date à Route to your calendar or task management system.
  • Emails that contain ideas that might become actionable, but require additional consideration and possibly organizational changes before you can act à Route to a folder called “Ideas for Future Consideration,” then read through this folder at least monthly to re-prioritize, delete or escalate the ideas you have deferred.
  • Emails that will never become actionable, but contain valuable information you want to store for future reference à route to one or more folders in your email solution.

Survival Tip 2: Automatically Route Emails

Your email solution can probably help you with the “Four Ds” – Delete, Do, Delegate, Defer – by automatically routing emails into subfolders, just as you can do with Outlook rules. Each of your team members should have their own subfolder, as should clients with whom you correspond regularly. You can also route personal emails into one or more subfolders to maintain your focus throughout he workday.

You can also create subfolders in your inbox for social media sites, financial institutions (bank statements), forums, accounting emails (electronic invoices), or any other type of email that you receive on a regular basis and/or that is auto-generated.

Then, if an email skirts your rules and finds its way to your primary inbox, you can give that email immediate attention and either route it manually to a subfolder, create a new rule to auto-route similar types of emails in the future, or unsubscribe from the email so it never comes to you again. Then, if the email is still in your inbox, perform one of the “four Ds” to promptly clear it.

Survival Tip 3: Synchronize Your Inboxes across Multiple Devices

Like most citizens of the 21st Century, you probably receive emails on multiple devices – creating troublesome little “clones” of each pesky email. If you don’t manage this correctly, you will have to perform the “Four Ds” multiple times for the same emails. To avoid this time wasting activity, leverage email server technologies, such as IMAP or Apple’s iCloud, to synchronize your inboxes across multiple devices. Then, if you delete an email from the inbox on your tablet, it is removed from your inbox on your computer, on your phone … everywhere.

When synchronizing your inboxes, make sure each one has the same sub-folder structure so that all devices (especially your primary computer) retain deleted, sent, and deferred items for future reference. If you plan to delegate the email to a co-worker and you use a collaborative task management solution such as a CRM, make sure to integrate your task management system with your mobile devices, if possible, or update your task management when you return to your computer.

A Final Note

As you read this article, you may still have your doubts. You may have already resigned yourself to a world in which the inbox wins – a Blade Runner-style diaspora in which all of humanity gasps for every breath under a suffocating mountain of endless, mind-numbing emails.

But, stay hopeful! It just takes the right combination of strategy (the “four Ds”), discipline, determination, and technology to survive the Inbox Apocalypse.