Is your inbox a source of despair? Fear not! You can conquer it and develop good habits which will reduce its negative impact on you in the future.
First, a few basic principles:
1. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves your full attention.
2. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves to be answered with a correspondingly lengthy reply or, in many cases, any reply at all.
3. Discard the notion that you must file everything you save. Mail programs have search functions; unless its a category where you regularly need to know the last action on it or something that would be hard to capture in a search, just throw it in one big Archive folder.
4. Discard more email. Delete delete delete!
If your work is like mine, you have probably five main kinds of email:
– incoming, haven't looked at it
– action required
– action required, but not by any particular time (e.g. articles to read, someday/maybe projects)
– filed by topic (in my case, at minimum, folders for each customer and folders for each product release & sometimes the particularly discussed line items within that)
– archive (all other "dealt with" mail)
Additionally, those who subscribe to mailing lists or who are on group aliases will want to segregate any incoming mail to those which do not require reading on a daily basis. For example, my department has a group alias but that's often very timely information, so it goes into my regular inbox. Our customers have a mailing list where they trade tips and discuss issues but they are instructed to open calls with our help desk for anything urgent; since I could ignore the list for days at a time if more urgent matters arise, I have set up a filter to direct that mail into a separate folder. (And I have that folder inside a folder called lists so that I can't see the count of messages in it and get tempted to go "clean it up" when it is really not the first priority).
Some people like to have their inbox separate from their "action required" folder, but I adhere to a different approach: label quickly and then act on things in the right order. My labels are: Urgent, 2 Minute, 10 Minute, 30 Minute, Waiting For Someone. This last label has a special meaning if it's in my inbox: check on this if you don't get a response quickly. Otherwise, things that I don't have to do anything on until someone else moves it forward can go in my Waiting For Someone folder.
More about specific techniques tomorrow!