The No–Bull Guide to Inbox Management, v1.0 guide

My friends all think I’m insane for the way my inbox looks. On a given day, there are between 0 and 7 messages.

Some may express slight awe at times; the majority shoot me the crazy eye. But  I would posit that my email practices are a simple way to help reduce feelings of crazy-eye. Ask yourself how many hours per year you spend reading mail that isn’t useful to you, or just downright annoying. How many potential connections go by the wayside when you can’t find a message and give up?  How much of others’ time do you waste then, too? And the SPAM, man! The SPAM!

It’s rather simple, really. I use my inbox as my task list. It sounds obvious, but I only keep my “to-dos” visible, while clearing everything else. And just for reference, all of this refers primarily to email for business. You’ve probably heard the term “inbox zero,” referring to the goal of getting to ZERO messages in your inbox at a given time. And when you do? That’s when you know it’s piña colada time. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Delete and Unsubscribe: This is the first step to cleaning your house. It gets easier as you do it longer– trust me. “Is the info in this newsletter genuinely useful, keep me connected to something meaningful, or provide value?” If it’s deals from a store you haven’t shopped at in over 3 years, chances are you don’t need to care. Now here’s the crucial part: don’t just kill it off, keep it from coming back! Take that extra 5 seconds to scroll to the verrrry bottom of the message (in gmail sometimes messages are clipped and you have to click something to read the whole thing) and find that annoying, tiny print with the unsubscribe link. Make sure you see what the next page says, as you may need to enter your address to stop the bullshit permanently (ugh). Don’t think you’ve paid your parking until the meter says “APPROVED.” Insert Japanese word here for immaculate decluttering-leading-to-a-calm-happiness here.
  2. Respond and Archive: Respond to messages as you would, with one exception: whenever possible, instead of telling people you’ll do a task soon, don’t respond until you have done the thing; e.g. “Hey Joe send me that photo when you get the chance, ” to which you respond, “Here it is! (attachment).” Avoid the whole “Yeah, will do when I get back to my office!” whenever possible. This focuses on the doing instead of talking about the thing. Unless a project is on a tight timeline and you truly need to let them know you’ll do X thing very soon, it can wait. From my experience, deadlines excepted, just responding with the file or finished task report wastes much less time on both ends. And if you don’t allow yourself to respond until it’s done, you motivate yourself to knock that email off the list. When you need to find something, you just search it. If you want an additional layer of accessibility, either label it for quick reference (tags or labels, whichever your email service supports). Remember that you can always search the name of the person the message is from to find something quickly.
  3. Describe and Prioritize: When composing a new message, remember to use a subject line that you might actually search. When sending a PDF to someone, the subject line should never be “that file you wanted.” This will poison your search well with convoluted and irrelevant terms that serve no one. It’s not unlikely for me to complete an entire freelance project for someone and use only one email thread, which would be titled something like “Sam’s Brand Video Production.” Once you have well-described task-messages in your inbox, you can decide which tasks to prioritize. Star those messages, mark them, add them to your calendar, or whatever else you need to do in order to move them from the digital plan-making stage into the executive phase of the task. You are getting our of your own way. You are cleaning your desk and putting the most important thing right in front of you.

I see so much work communication moving away from email and toward messaging and project management services. I’m not opposed to any of these systems (I’ve used Slack before religiously). Yet email will always be there, because there’s a pseudo-permanence to it; an “on-the-record-ness” that things like Slack or Basecamp or Hipchat won’t ever live up to personally. I will always move a business conversation from a facebook messaging session to email whenever possible and as quickly as is appropriate. Mastering your own flow in this domain can literally change the way your day goes. There is power in consolidation.

So there’s one methodology. I’ll probably revise this crazy thing once all you people give me the weird eye again. You’re welcome :)