Let’s face it. While email promised to make our lives so much easier, most of us find ourselves buried under a mountain of the stuff. If you take a look at our inboxes you will find hundreds if not thousands of messages clogging up our lives. The scary thing is that once a message has been pushed off the first page it lingers in some kind of an electronic Bermuda Triangle never to be heard from again. Should we dare, we all know that if we sift through those email archives we will find a host of dropped balls, forgotten intentions, and missing to-do lists. What was once a tool of efficiency has now become a great source of stress and anxiety both for us, and for those who have sent us messages hoping in vain that we would respond and/or do something to help them.
I have good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. Getting out and staying out of this mess is much easier than you think. It is very possible to have a clean inbox with nothing in it at all. Let me tell you how this is done.
A. Realize that your inbox is a collection device, not a storage device.
The purpose of your inbox is to hold messages you haven’t looked at yet – and that’s it! No more! Nothing is more important than your personal commitment to this idea. Your inbox is only for unread messages – you *never* leave a message you’ve read in the inbox – ever.
B. You need to create appropriate places where read messages should go.
Ultimately, you can divide all your email into two categories. Messages that require you to do something, and messages that don’t. Pretty easy, eh?
For messages that require action you need to create the following sub-folders:
For messages that don’t require any action from you, create the following sub-folders:
C. When you first look at an unread message, all you have to do is decide where to put it.
As soon as you take a look at a message you need to ask this crucial question: Do I have to do anything to respond to this? There are only two possible answers. If the answer is “yes” go to the next step.
Messages that require action:
1. Does this message require action from someone else? Forward it to them and then delete the message. If, for some reason, you need a record that you did indeed forward this message, you can alternatively move it to “Archive”. What ever you do, DO NOT LEAVE THE MESSAGE IN YOUR INBOX!
2. Can I do what this message requires within the next 100 seconds? Then do it now and delete the message. If you absolutely must have a record of this for posterity, you can alternatively put the message in Archive. As always, never leave the message in your inbox.
3. Should I do what this message requires today? Then move it to your “Today” folder.
4. Should I do what this message requires some time this week? Then move it to your “This Week” folder.
5. Should I do what this message requires some time next week? Then move it to your “Next Week” folder.
6. Should I do what this message requires some time this month? Then move it to your “This Month” folder.
7. Should I do what this message requires some time next month or later? Then move it to your “Future” folder.
8. Is this message a request for prayer? This one is a tad more difficult, since there are two different types of requests for prayer – recurring and non-recurring. A non-recurring request for prayer is a request regarding a temporary non-repeating event in the near future (i.e. my husband Bill has a job interview tomorrow). Because these requests fall under the 100 second rule, simply stop and take a couple minutes to pray about the item and then delete the message (a quick response would be a good idea as well).
A recurring prayer request is for a chronic or long term situation (i.e. my husband Bill broke his leg). For these types of requests take the 100 seconds to pray about it now and then move the message into your “Prayer” folder (you’ll be coming back to this folder as part of your daily routine as I’ll show later).
Messages that don’t require action:
1. Is this junk mail? Delete it.
2. Does the message contain information that you know you will be looking up on a regular basis (i.e. an updated phone list)? Move the message to the “Reference” folder.
3. Does the message contain some good ideas that you might want to think about sometime in the future? Move the message to the “Good Ideas” folder.
4. Does the message contain information that you might possibly need again? Move the message to the “Archive” folder.
You may find that the first time you do this, even if you have hundreds of messages in your inbox, that you will be able to process your mail much faster than you thought was possible. After you’ve made your first run through your inbox will be completely empty. Yay!!
D. Establishing your daily email routine.
Personally, I hate maintaining complex systems. Fortunately, you’ll find this system extremely easy to maintain. Your day will be far more productive, you won’t have any more dropped balls, and your levels of stress will decrease dramatically.
Here is the daily routine:
1. Clean out your inbox using the process described above.
2. Go to your “Prayer” folder and pray through all the recurring items found in there. Every once in a while delete the items that no longer apply (i.e. Bill’s leg is better and he’s walking again).
3. Scan through your “This Week” folder and move any item you wish to tackle today into the “Today” folder.
4. Get to work on your “Today” folder and do whatever you can to complete the actions required by each message so you can either move that message into trash or “archive”.
5. As mail comes in throughout the day, process it and never leave it in your inbox.
E. Other routines
Every Monday move your “Next Week” items into “This Week”, and your “This Month” items into the “Next Week” folder – when appropriate. Follow the daily routine as usual.
Every 1st of a new month move the appropriate items in your “Future” folder into your “This Month” folder. Take a good look at your “Good Ideas” folder and see if there is anything in there you would like to tackle, and then move onto your weekly and daily routines.
You are now in total control of your email. Your efficiency will have doubled and your stress cut in half. Now all you have to do is teach this to the rest of your staff and you’ll find that everyone will be much happier, productive, and relaxed.
p.s. If you are a real keener, this same system can be made to apply to snail mail, and phone messages as well.