Processing your email inbox

In todays always on, always available, connected life processing your email inbox is most likely the most important input queue you have.

In 2006, Merlin Mann coined the term “Inbox Zero” where he applied David Allen’s GTD concepts to email.  He gave a speech at Google on Inbox Zero that is famous and it radically changed my approach to dealing with email.  I highly recommend you watch it.

Several of the GTD-based best practices for email are counter intuitive and will go against what you currently do or believe is the “right” way to do email.

Schedule time to process your email. Do not do email randomly throughout the day. It is imperative that you do not do email randomly throughout the day. Instead, you should schedule 15-30 minutes several times a day to process your email inbox.  As I stated in my previous post Processing to Zero, there is ample research to prove this is the optimal approach to dealing with email.

Turn off “Toast”.  If you use Outlook or any email system that has “toast” that notifies you of new email turn it off.  Turn off all audio alerts to new email.  You must resist the temptation to “just take a quick peek” at your inbox.  This is a productivity killer!

Do not use folders to file email.  Once again research shows the time it takes for you to think about where you should file the email outweighs the value of the folder structure in recalling the email when you need it.  This has not always been true but with the advent of powerful search built into all email clients it is more efficient to search for email when you need it.  You should only set up one “Archive” folder other than the folders that your email client requires.

Process your inbox to zero.  When you are processing your email inbox use the following 4 simple rules until you have completely cleaned out your inbox:

  1. Delete the email. If it is spam, FYI, or other non-actionable email delete it!
  2. If the action necessary to close the loop or complete the email is less than two minutes – just do it!
  3. If it is actionable and will take more than 2 minutes, forward the email to your Evernote email address to process later.  If you use Outlook on the PC, you can click on the Evernote icon in the Outlook “Home Ribbon” and it will give you the option to assign it to the appropriate Notebook. (Home, Next Action, Project, Someday/Maybe, Waiting For)
  4. Delete the original email or move it to Archive if you think you may want the original email to refer to or to forward/reply in the future.

Do this for every message in your inbox until it is empty. You will have a profound sense of accomplishment and a psychological relief knowing that all of your open loops are in your trusted system. Train yourself to never leave a read email in your inbox. Make a decision about every message you read the first time you read it – no excuses. Be ruthless about this new practice – never touch an email in your inbox more than once.

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About Michael Keithley
Digital Transformation CIO and Public Speaker. Previously, CIO at Creative Artists Agency

3 Responses to Processing your email inbox

  1. Pingback: How to reduce the number of emails in your inbox « GTD for CIOs

  2. Pingback: Email Overload! « GTD for CIOs

  3. Eileen says:

    Love all your posts Michael!
    Some sound stuff here 🙂

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