For many (if not most) people, the email inbox is a continuous source of stress and information overload. Gaining control over your inbox may seem like an impossible task. Use this strategy to quickly get a handle on your inbox and keep it under control long term. I have used this technique for several years and it works. I will provide setup instructions for Microsoft Outlook 2007 but you can implement a similar scheme in most email platforms.
The goal with this email management technique is to touch each email only once and to process each email quickly and efficiently. Then, once an email has been processed, never see it again (unless you want to).
In my "How To Work Efficiently" seminar I suggest that the email inbox should be for "pending action" emails only. This usually means emails in which you need more information before they can be processed. Using this approach, your email inbox becomes a pseudo task list. In fact, I tell people who need me to do something to email me because my inbox is my to-do list. Now, obviously, for this strategy to work long term, your inbox must remain uncluttered. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Before we get started, to summarize the last two paragraphs, this technique is about keeping your inbox clean of everything that does not require further action, processing emails quickly and touching each email only once if possible. In order to start using this technique, you need to first clean up your existing inbox. For many, the best option here is to create a folder named "Old Inbox" and move your entire inbox into this folder. Then, move back into the real inbox only those emails that are pending action. Once your inbox is as clean as it is going to get, follow these instructions to setup some email handling preferences.
1. In Microsoft Outlook 2007, sort your email inbox so that the newest messages are at the top (if not so already) by clicking the "Received" column header to sort the column by received date.
2. Click on the "Tools" menu. Then, click "Options."
3. In the "Options" window, on the "Preferences" tab, click the "Email Options" button.
4. In the "Email Options" window, under "Message Handling" find the option that reads "After moving or deleting an open item." Next to this option select "open the previous item."
5. Click "OK" until you have closed all the option windows.
Now, here is the meat of this article. Once a day or once a week, depending on your schedule and volume of incoming email, start at the BOTTOM (oldest emails) of your email inbox and open the last email. On the ribbon bar in Outlook 2007 there are two big buttons "Delete" and "Move to Folder." These buttons are your friends. With this last email in your inbox open, click either the "Delete" button or the "Move to Folder" button depending on which is appropriate. If you implemented my suggestion of using only one email folder named "Processed" which I mentioned in part one of this article, then the "Move to Folder" button is really easy. Once you have moved at least one email to the "Processed" folder, the "Processed" folder will always be the first option on the "Move to Folder" drop down menu.
If you processed the last email as described in the last paragraph, you probably noticed that the next to last oldest email automatically opened on your screen. Now all you have to do is process this email the same way. Then, the next oldest email will pop up. Continue until you reach the top of your inbox.
The reason I suggested starting at the button with the oldest email is because if you start with the newest emails, many times you will never reach the oldest. What will happen then is the oldest emails will accumulate and go unresolved. If these happen to be customer emails at the bottom of your inbox, the customer could be looking for a new vendor while you are looking at your newest emails. Starting with the oldest emails first forces you to process them in a timely manner.
I hope you find this two part article useful. Please comment if you have any questions, comments or rants about this article.