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 the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • I moved to keeping an empty email box about a year ago, but I did it gradually. My first move was to make sure it was empty just once a week, on Fridays. You can imagine the wonderful (not) Friday evenings I spend adhering to that goal. I shifted to a daily goal and pretty much keep to it, using a version of the process you described. My own rule is to have no more than a viewing pane of emails in the inbox, most of which would fall in the “read/hold” category you mentioned. The biggest key to doing this is indeed handling the quick ones on the spot, as you prescribe.

    I still haven’t totally gotten over the “email inbox as to-do list” issue. It is still a “to-do” to keep on top of it the way I do. One big giant, soul-sucking, boring, and annoying “to-do.” It’s an understatement to say that I have no love lost for email.

  • Wade, I wish you’d been at MassInno on Wednesday, because our presentation for Boomerang was pretty much a carbon copy of paragraphs from this article in terms of laying out the problem, plus a few humorous images.

    We gave a demo of how Boomerang makes it easy to manage those emails that Matt described, helping people to handle email without feeling like robots.

    It sounds like you’re on a Mac, but if you’ve got a copy of Outlook kicking around, let me know! Otherwise, we’ll have a version for Gmail coming out in the next couple weeks.

  • @Jules: I feel your pain. And I admit that I do leave some e-mail in my inbox as reminders of things I’ve got to take care of. I think the danger is that if you let them stay in there longer than one day, there’s much less chance that you’ll actually get around to doing them.

    @Alex: Thanks for your comment. I’m aware of Boomerang and similar tools like Followup (which Erin profiled here recently). Thankfully I escaped from Outlook a few years ago and would never consider going back. But I’d love to try out your Gmail version when it’s ready. Generally though, I’m skeptical about the idea of dealing with the difficult e-mails simply by forwarding them to yourself in the future. This seems like just another way of delaying the pain. Of course there are people who argue, in all seriousness, that putting off as much stuff as you can is a good time management technique!

  • Michael Hawes

    Wade, thanks for another excellent article. I find all your articles informative, well-researched and well-written. Keep it up!

  • Alex Moore

    Aye, at some point you have to pay the fiddler’s bill.

    To be honest, I was skeptical too, until I started using the thing every day. Knowing that there are 3 difficult emails left, and nothing else, is psychologically very different than looking at an Inbox with 20 messages in it, only 3 of which are actionable right now. Looking forward to seeing if the Gmail version has the same effect on you!

  • Bill Baker

    A small additional tip for Outlook users, but likely applies to all or most other email clients: Your answer, read and hold folders will be spread out in your folder hierarchy, because the folder list is usually alphabetical. Read might not even show in the first N folder names. I named mine ‘0 – Answer’, ‘1 – Read’ and ‘2 – Hold’. They are always at the top of the folder list and top-of-mind.

  • @Bill Baker—that’s a really good point. I actually did the same thing in Gmail, which has folders but calls them labels. I created three labels called “1 Answer”, “2 Read”, and “3 Hold”, and now they’re at the top of my label list, which makes it easy to drag-and-drop emails right into those bins.