E-mail Clutter: How to Get Rid of it Once and for All

How to Process Your Inbox Efficiently and Extricate Yourself from Your E-mail Effortlessly

In the book Getting Things Done, David Allen shows in a Workflow Diagram how to most efficiently handle your inbox. The classic time management strategy for handling papers or e-mails is to prioritize and sort your papers and e-mails into the following four categories:

Do, Delegate, Defer or Dump

Allen breaks it down a bit further. If you can take care of your e-mail or the paper in your inbox in under two minutes, then do it now – it is more efficient than chucking it into a pile to do later. If you cannot handle it quickly, can you delegate it to someone else; defer it to a later date or toss it in your “Next Actions” file, handling it as soon as you can; or, can you just dump it now?

The Do it Now mantra is one of my favorite keys to better time management, and I use it whenever possible. However, larger e-mails and projects often need a place to live until I have some extra time to handle them. Otherwise they end up buried in my inbox or filed away and forgotten. The trick is getting these tasks onto your schedule so they resurface at the point when you’ll be able to handle them.

To keep these points in mind, I’ve posted a sticky-note on my desk that reads:

  • Do it Now (2 min)
  • Delegate
  • Delete
  • Defer
First, Prepare Yourself to Get Rid Of E-mail Clutter

Most people are inundated with e-mail and buried in electronic clutter. Wondering if you are among them? If you have more e-mails in your inbox than you can see on one screen, you have e-mail clutter. Prepare to clear your electronic slate (and gain some valuable time management skills) with these simple tips:

1. Leverage the 80/20 Rule.

It helps to delete the old e-mails if you remember the 80/20 Rule: 80 percent of our results come from 20 percent of our efforts. Those old e-mails are usually part of the 80% of stuff we think we need to do that isn’t really that important and likely never will be. It is generally safe to delete them without thinking too much about it. If you need more security, you can archive them instead, but make sure you get them out of your inbox.

2. Create a “Things to Do” or “Action” Folder.

If in the process of clearing your old e-mails you unearth a few that demand response, pluck them out (you can even physically print them) and pop them into a “To Do” file folder, marking a time on your calendar when you will handle them. Or, if you regularly check the folder, move the old e-mails into a file folder labeled “Actions.”

If you move them into an Action or Tasks file but never check it, then you are better off printing its contents. If you do file, mark a date on your calendar when you will do it. This will prevent your desk and computer from getting covered with sticky notes!

Benefits of a Clean Inbox: 
  • Far easier to maintain a clean inbox if you start out with one. This alone is a tremendous key to better time management).
  • Inspires you to delete with confidence.
  • Offers an immediate sense of relief and freedom.
  • Provides more psychological space for thinking creatively.
Scrap that E-mail Clutter!

All clutter takes up a certain amount of psychological space and can leave a person feeling burdened or sluggish. Getting rid of it creates an immediate sense of order and control, accompanied by feelings of lightness and freedom. E-mail clutter accumulates faster than anything—even for the well-organized. If you have too many e-mails crowding your inbox and are on the look out for great stress management tips, “The E-mail Delete Club” is for you.

Before reforming my approach to electronic clutter, I’d open up my e-mail each morning to find an avalanche of e-mails in my inbox. I felt burdened by the build-up and kept putting off the job of clearing the mess until the day I discovered that I’d overlooked a message from a prospective client. E-mail clutter was negatively impacting my business. It was time to take action!

Sound familiar? Here are some great new organizational skills that will help you start clearing the decks.

1. Create a Buddy System.

Having someone to report to holds us accountable and leads to better time management and motivation. Nobody wants to report that they haven’t made some progress, and checking in with someone else is fun and helpful. If you can quickly and easily clear out your box on your own, great, otherwise don’t waste another minute. If you are not already working on this with a professional life coach, get a buddy to work with (you can find a buddy in the forum online). Call or e-mail each other once a day (for no more than 5 minutes) to report your progress. Just about everyone can get things done faster and easier if they have a little friendly support.

It is a fairly safe bet that just about everyone in the office could benefit by spending a few hours clearing e-mail clutter. You may even suggest it to the boss as an idea to improve efficiency.

2. Start with the Facts.

This is one of the best ways to relieve stress caused by tackling such a big job. Start by reporting to your buddy the current number of old e-mails to delete. When I did this with a group of buddies, immediately I felt better as some folks had thousands of old e-mails lurking about. Suddenly my 700 looked pretty manageable (one reason misery loves company). We each stated how many e-mails we would delete each day to reach the zero goal. This onerous task was actually becoming fun.

3. The Radical Method.

The award for the best clearing tip actually goes to my cat, Sweet Pea, who jumped on my keyboard one morning and somehow managed to delete all the e-mails from my inbox in one fell swoop (kudos to the kitty for good time management skills!). For a moment, I stared at the blank computer screen in horror and panic. The next moment I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Hooray! I didn’t have to deal with all those e-mails! Then it dawned on me that all those e-mails were probably sitting in my Deleted folder. Darn! I’d still have to deal with them.

I opened the file and started looking for the e-mails that were important and in five minutes, I dragged about 20 of them into my inbox and left the rest to certain death. Whew! Oddly, once the e-mails were in the delete folder, it was easier to leave them there than to pull them out. The same was true for the inbox. Once e-mails are in the inbox, they seem to want to stay there. You may want to try this yourself for a quick and radical fix.

4. The Less Radical Method.

For those who find the above tip a little too radical, here is a softer approach. Set up a new file folder in your e-mail program labeled “Old E-mail” and then highlight and drag all your inbox e-mails and put them in this folder. You can do this by year if you have years of old e-mails in your inbox, e.g. “Old E-mails 2014” or by month. This will immediately create a clean slate to work from. It is much easier to maintain a clear inbox if you have a fresh start and mentally, it just feels better. Then decide how many of the old e-mails you will delete each day from the Old E-mail folder and stick to it until they are all gone.

Be ruthless. You can do it.

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How to Prevent E-mail Overload in the Future

It is all well and good to do a massive clear out of your inbox and e-mail, but what about maintaining a clean inbox? Here a few practical tips that will help you keep that e-mail inbox from getting swamped again:

1. Get rid of the CC’d E-mails.

If you have Outlook or Gmail, set up a rule or a filter and a folder labeled “CC’d E-mails.” Most of the time, you don’t need to read e-mails in which you are CC’d as they count as the 80% that never usually matters. To prevent e-mails from cluttering your inbox, set up a filter that sends them directly to this “CC’d E-mails” folder. Review this folder once a week just in case there is an important e-mail. If a colleague asks why you didn’t act on an e-mail that got sent to your CC’d file, tell him or her that if you are meant to act on an e-mail, it should be mailed to you directly, not CC’d.

2. Unsubscribe from anything that you don’t need.

An obvious one, but you regularly need to review your subscriptions to keep them in check.

3. Make Follow-up Easy.

We often keep e-mails in our inbox because we know we need to follow-up on them later. Try this approach instead. Set up a folder labeled, “Follow-Up” and set up a rule or filter that any e-mail that you send directly to yourself (NOT CC’d to you or it will go in the CC’d Folder above!) goes directly to this Follow-Up folder. When you give someone an action to do, send the e-mail to yourself as well so that it goes into this folder automatically. Once a week review your Follow-Up folder. Problem solved! And, since most people don’t follow up, you’ll get more done than most with this simple strategy, saving you time while keeping your inbox free and clear of clutter.



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