Outboxing the inbox

a row of rural mailboxesThis may sound somewhat radical, but one of my goals for the year is to have no more than 10 e-mails languishing in my inbox for more than 24 hours at a time. I’m doing this as an experiment to see how feasible it really is, and so far, so good!

Over the past several months, both friends and clients have asked about “the inbox,” and how best to manage all the stuff that keeps on keeping their boxes so full. Unlike the little box at the end of your driveway or the mailbox in the lobby of your apartment building, the capacity of the electronic mailbox is infinite. “To infinity .. and beyond!” as Buzz Lightyear says, is good a good motivational approach for some things, but when it comes to the inbox, it behooves many to rein it in a bit.

I realize the thought of only ten e-mails may be laughable if you receive significantly more or even fewer e-mails on an average day than I do. (Go ahead, laugh, it’s good for the soul!) But for me, this is a sustainable goal, and one which will lead to desired shifts in my own time and task management behaviors.

So, how to do this? How to make the world of electronic communications a little less overwhelming?

Let’s start here: How many e-mails reside in your inbox at the present moment? What would it feel like to spend just 15 minutes deleting or filing as many unnecessary messages in your inbox as you could? Do you think it would be hard to do? Have you got 15 minutes right now? If so, go ahead and try it. If not, promise me you’ll try it before you go to bed tonight.

What comes into your inbox is just as important as what goes out. In most instances, you choose what you want to receive. If it constantly feels like too much, there are ways to exercise control over this aspect of your electronic domain. Triaging inbox contents and evaluating what really needs your attention or an action taken will help you decide what stays, what goes, and what goes where:

  • E-mails from retailers and e-tailers. Depending on how much shopping you do or how much you like to be apprised of the latest sales and new products, e-mails from retailers and e-tailers can accumulate quickly. I recommend that unless you are in the market for a particular item, take a few seconds to scan the offerings and then delete the e-mail. If you’re inclined to hold onto an e-mail because you see something you might like to buy for a friend or family member, move the e-mail to a folder of “GIFT IDEAS,” bookmark that item, or add it to a running list you might be keeping elsewhere. Unless your inbox contents are slim and manageable, this is not an optimal place to keep such e-mail reminders. If you think someone you know might be interested in the contents of the e-mail, simply forward it to them and then remove it from your inbox.
  • Facebook. Unless you’ve turned off the e-mail alerts setting, the more you respond to postings on Facebook and other social networking sites, the more you’re going to be inundated with comments and replies to replies. Decide what best meets your needs, and if you want to continue to receive comments as they’re made, be sure to peruse and delete them as quickly as you can.
  • Electronic mailing lists. If you subscribe to active electronic mailing lists, the blizzards of messages can be maddening and impossible to keep up with on a daily basis. If it serves your needs best and you don’t have to see every single posting as it’s sent to the list, change your subscription settings so you receive a daily or weekly digest version.
  • Unsubscribe. Be discerning about the e-mail lists and publications you subscribe to. If you notice that you regularly ignore or have stopped reading particular mailings, it’s okay to “unsubscribe.” (Try it. It feels great!)
  • Electronic bills. You can schedule most electronic bills to be paid on a prescribed day. Once you’ve paid or “scheduled” your bill payments, you can remove the e-mail notice from your inbox.
  • Think “file folders.” Just as you would have actual file folders for keeping records, projects, client correspondence, etc. in order in a physical environment, you can apply the same organizing treatment to your e-mails. Think: Off the desk and into the files. Out of the inbox and into the files. Here are examples of e-mail file folder names for sorting important information that have been useful for some: ONLINE ORDERS (as for items purchased online), EVENTS (for electronic receipts and info for events you’ll be attending), TRAVEL (travel confirmations, etc. for scheduled trips), TRAVEL IDEAS (a place to collect information about possible future trips) “FRIEND “(label the folder with the name of a particular friend or person whose correspondence you wish to collect), etc.

There’s no time like the present to begin setting your own inbox target goal number. Taking steady and gentle strides will move you closer and closer to your goal, thereby making space for you to set your sights on the infinite possibilities in other realms of your life.

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  1. Avatar
    $0.01 Reply

    I am lucky– I’ve had the same personal email address for about 14 years and somehow haven’t ever gotten significantly spammed there. I’m diligent about deleting subscription digests, don’t do bills from this account, don’t get FB updates here, etc. The problem is that I don’t file as much as I should. Hence, I have over 3000 emails in the in-box. I do have a folder system for the emails but since my provider has got such a good email search engine, I can generally find the info I’m looking for (sent or received) right away, and there goes my motivation for staying on top of the filing. Ideally I file it as soon as I read it, but sometimes I have to flag it for later response and that doesn’t work when it’s filed… Other suggestions? Thanks for your insight!

    • liberatedspaces
      liberatedspaces Reply

      $0.01 – Flagging e-mails that need a response is a very excellent tactic provided you’re diligent about going through the inbox and unflagging them before filing them. (Unflagging them means you avoid Groundhog Day-like déja vu.) I think your approach is fine. Should there come a day when you have time and the desire to file everything away, consider using your inbox solely for items that require your attention.

  2. Avatar
    Mark Spiegel Reply

    Great idea to help us out with “electronic clutter”! A real problem…I am beginning to see that sometimes my wool gathering brain is just too overwhelmed to think past all the information that surrounds me everyday. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Avatar
    Lee Trampleasure Reply

    Another $0.02: Filters! (“rules”, I think, in Outlook). When an email arrives that you want to put in a folder, create a filter that puts upcoming similar emails (e.g. from the same address, with the same subject tag) in that folder automatically. I have these for my email lists, so if I’m busy I can ignore those emails and just focus on what’s in my inbox.

  4. Avatar
    John Reply

    Deb–thanks for the useful suggestions. You and your blog visitors might wish to check out an excellent (short) book on this topic — “Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload” by Mark Hurst.

    • liberatedspaces
      liberatedspaces Reply

      Thanks for the book recommendation, John! I will be sure to check it out.

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