Okay, You’ve Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy. Now What?

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do something. In early April, after the trial, I cleared out my inbox once again. And around the same time I found some great suggestions online that have been helping me to stay at zero. Here they are:

1. Set up a system of working e-mail folders to temporarily store “difficult” e-mails. This suggestion comes from Matt Perman, a blogger in Minneapolis who wrote a long, extremely useful post in 2008 called “How to Get your E-Mail Inbox to Zero Every Day.” Perman is an adherent of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system, which recommends dealing with most incoming e-mails by either deleting them immediately if they require no action, or taking action on them immediately if the action will take less than two minutes.

The difficulty, of course, is that many e-mails require action that will take more than two minutes. “It is these longer-than-two-minute e-mails that ruin most people’s day,” Perman correctly noted. Perman recommended dealing with these e-mails primarily by creating three folders entitled “Answer,” “Read,” and “Hold.” The Answer folder is for all e-mails that require a response that will take longer than two minutes to write. The Read folder is for material you have to look at, but will require more than two minutes to digest. And the Hold folder is for messages that require your action, but only after you get some vital response or piece of information from someone else.

Once you have these folders set up, you can power through your whole inbox quickly—deleting notes that don’t require action, acting immediately on those that can be answered quickly, and filing away most of the rest (with an exception that I’ll detail in a moment). I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, and I find that it’s a great way to keep my inbox empty. Which isn’t a wholly quixotic goal: I find that zeroing out my inbox is actually calming, because I know I’ve dealt with every incoming message or request, at least in a preliminary way. It also helps me avoid the trap of using my inbox as a kind of default to-do list. (This is a bad idea, I’ve found, because the list quickly grows so long that I lose track of the older items.)

What’s absolutely key to this system is that you make time every day to go back and deal with the messages that are now in your Answer, Read, and Hold folders. The stuff in Hold can stay there until you get the responses you need from other people. The stuff in Read can usually stay there until you have a 30- or 60-minute block of time to catch up on your reading.

Answering the messages in your Answer folder is the time-consuming part. There’s no way around this. But on the upside, I’ve found that I’m not putting as many e-mails into the Answer folder as I would have predicted, because I’m getting better at responding to most of my incoming messages in under two minutes. Also, I know that every time I put a message into the Answer folder, I’m just delaying the pain, which increases the incentive to deal with it immediately instead.

Finally, there is one more way to deal with e-mails that can save you from developing an overstuffed Answer folder. This is the exception that I mentioned a moment ago: it has to do with … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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