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Let me open this with a personal question.
How many e-mails in your inbox right now are more than two days old?
When I first start working with some of my clients, the number we begin with is often well over a thousand. Many of those emails go back weeks, months, and even years. It’s a vast digital cemetery of old assignments, meeting notes, expense reports, projects started and abandoned, commitments fulfilled and dropped … And that’s just their work inbox!
Whether you realize it or not, those old e-mails are vampires. They are distracting you and adding stress to your life. Your subconscious mind is spending energy on wondering what might be hiding inside those messages — and when you might call upon it to do something about them.
The only way to fix this (and to take back that energy) is to completely empty your e-mail inbox at least every couple of days.
Here’s how you can tackle your inbox right now — no matter where your email count stands!
Step 1: Get caught up.
Scan the most recent messages in your inbox (perhaps going back as far as two weeks). Are there any messages there that are urgent or important? If yes, capture the relevant details and identify your next actionable step.
A quick action might get accomplished right away. For example, if your next action is to email a client to remind him about submitting a document, you might choose to do it right away.
Other actions might require research and thought, but that’s not a good enough reason to keep them in the inbox. First, figure out your next action and add it to your to-do list. Once that’s done, you are ready to move that email out of the inbox into an action support, project, or reference folder.
Next, sort all the emails in your inbox by sender. Are there blocks that can be deleted with no regrets? Perhaps it’s promotional messages from LL Bean, a daily newsletter from Morningstar that you never read, or notifications from a Facebook group that you are a member in. Look for patterns, delete those blocks, and close the loop by unsubscribing from anything that doesn’t add value for you. Think of old subscriptions as a gift from your past self to your future self — and feel free to turn those “gifts” down if they no longer serve you.
Worry about deleting something important? Take a shortcut and archive it instead. This hack will effectively remove old emails from your inbox — but leave them within your reach should you change your mind.
Step 2: Have a plan to manage daily email flow.
When you empty your inbox consistently, you help your brain to let go of the subconscious anxiety that something in there might need your attention right now. Then, you can focus on what you are doing in the moment.
But this is harder than it sounds. You will need a plan for working with your email. Here are some suggestions to try on.
- Designate specific time blocks when you will work with your emails.Yes, this means no more checking email as a background for other things you are doing. Your inbox is not a place to hide from doing work. It’s also not your to-do list, unless you happen to enjoy being driven by the “pings” of new messages coming in. Set aside 1-3 stretches when you will log in and work through whatever has landed in your inbox. For the rest of the day, work from your agenda.
- Worry about missing an urgent message that requires your immediate attention?Then you might add a few “email scans” to your routine. During an email scan, you are merely monitoring your inbox for fire-drills. If there are none, you set it aside until your next email work block.
- Every email only gets touched one time.Open it. Read it from start to finish. Decide what you must do next. If that action takes less than 2 minutes, do it right away. If the action will take time and thought, file it with the appropriate project to address later. If the email doesn’t call for your action, archive or file it away for reference.
- Have an email that’s confusing, technical, or just plain hard to read? Take a deep breath. Set a timer for one full minute. And get to reading it. Pushing through it for one minute is better than abandoning it 3 sentences in — and having it consume your precious mind-space for the rest of the day.
Step 3: If you fall off the wagon — just get back on!
Nobody is perfect, and even the most serious Inbox Zero devotees can sometimes end up with a few days’ (or weeks’) worth of messages sitting there.
If that happens to you, that’s OK. Schedule a block of time to deal with your email backlog. Work through it. No judgment. You have a system; you just need to remember to use it.
Now, I know what you may be thinking. Who has the time to empty their inbox every day?
Think about it this way. Who has the time to be distracted? You have a long project list. You have big goals and dreams. You have important things to accomplish!
Every day presents you with a choice. Will you show up as awesome — or distracted? Your clients, your colleagues, and your family need you present, energized, and focused. They deserve it. And you deserve it, too.
So, take your first step towards getting that inbox under control!
Chris Belfi is the founder and CEO of MaxPotential Coaching.
His company works with executive-level leaders and business owners and who are drowning in their own success and feel underwater in a sea of things they are supposed to get done. Through proven techniques, MaxPotential Coaching allows executives to take control of their endless to-do list and the other details of their lives and work, go home on time, and create the space to do what matters most to them.