Episode 19: March 4, 2008
by Stever Robbins
Today's topic is dealing with too much incoming e-mail. Jim writes:
You have covered e-mail backlogs as well as templates and macros, but I have yet another e-mail question. How can I best handle the glut of incoming e-mails I get every day?
I have spam filters galore and am still overwhelmed by e-mail from coworkers, friends, lists with useful information, etc. Usually I just end up archiving the messages meaning to go back to them and never get around to doing it. This means that about one day a month is wasted on sorting through my archive when it piles up to the point I have to go through it or risk being buried in electronic garbage.
The quick and dirty tip is to empty your inbox and keep it empty by separating e-mail scanning and planning from action. Use the technique recommended by Mark Forster, time management guru.
Jim, I feel your pain, more than you know. I've used e-mail since seventh grade and had an empty inbox exactly twice. It was bliss, pure Nirvana. I stared at the screen with a goofy smile, thrilled that I'd handled everything. Fifteen seconds later, a talking paperclip proudly informed me ... that I had more mail. So much for peace.
At least the big e-mail problem used to be spam. We could hit delete and it was just gone (which reminds me, I still have to respond to that deposed Nigerian Prince). We complained bitterly about what a hassle it was to hit delete, never suspecting that spam would be dwarfed by the real problem: real e-mail. The more serious problem is the real e-mails. They require actual thought and time. I have 193 messages in my inbox this morning. At 1.5 minutes apiece, that's over 5 hours... a day!
There's a way to cope, but take heed, intrepid adventurer: the way is fraught with peril. You must be strong of will and pure of heart. If you are ready to travel the six-fold path to e-mail inbox freedom, take a deep breath and we shall begin.
Step 1: Admit and Commit. Turn to the person next to you, look deeply into their eyes, and repeat after me. "I," (state your name), "am an e-mail victim. My backlog increases daily, and I willfully deceive myself into believing I'll manage it. The truth is, I just can't cope." Now take a deep breath. "Starting today, I commit to having an empty inbox when I leave work, even if I have to reply to Bernice in sentences of two syllables or less." Mentally, commit to an empty inbox. Commit... Commit... Excellent! Are you as ready to be committed as I am? Good!
Step 2: Embody perfection. Go to your e-mail program. Create a folder called "Backlog." Go to your inbox. Select everything. Drag it all to the "Backlog" folder. As you watch the messages vanishing from your inbox, take a deep breath and let it out. When your inbox is completely empty, smile a goofy smile and be thrilled that you've handled everything.
Step 3: Surrender to a higher power. That would be ... a pencil and paper. Get out a pad of paper and a pen or pencil. No, you can't type this. It must be hand-written. Sharpen the pencil. Take a deep breath.
Step 4: Scanning and Planning. This is the hard part. Schedule a time each day to process your inbox. Your commitment: totally and completely empty it. Here's how: go through each message, read it quickly. Ask yourself, "What do I have to do to handle this message?" Write that down on your piece of paper. For example, Bernice sends a long e-mail about a family tragedy. Your to-do item is "Send Bernice a sympathy card regarding her unfortunate Spandex incident." You could also make a note to give Bernice a quick phone call. It'll save you postage, and making a quick check-in call is almost always faster than taking the time to compose a thoughtful response.
Delete or file the message, and continue. Do not, under any circumstances, take any action other than writing down the to-do item. Continue until your inbox is empty. At 20 seconds per item, you can get through 100 e-mails in half an hour.
Step 5: Reduce the backlog. Take the first 9 messages in the backlog folder. Turn them into "to do" items and then delete them. Eventually, your backlog won't even be a memory. Just remember, never take action. Just write down the action and later deal with it.
Step 6: Integrate the tasks. Integrate the to-do items into your task list. But think about each new to-do as you add it. Each to-do will use precious time. Once lost, it can never be regained. So only add to-dos that will make your life better. Shred the rest and if anyone complains, tell them you don't have the time. Listen to the How to Say 'No' episode to learn how.
Now, party! Your inbox is clean! You've done it. It's tamed! Now if only you can tame that haircut that looked like such a good idea at the time, life will be perfect. So, my most enlightened seeker, remember the keys to this ceremony:
Never open your inbox without utter commitment to emptying it.
Every day, you must strive for emptiness.
Never take action on your e-mail, even to respond. Write down the action first and once you know the scope of everything you have to do, integrate the actions into your day in a way that makes sense ... or drop them altogether.
Every day make progress on your backlog, even if it's just a single message. Eventually, your backlog will vanish.
This technique comes from the book Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster. Mark joined me by phone to explain the technique and why it works. You can hear our interview here.
In the Resources section below, you'll find additional links to those and a handout summarizing this technique, suitable for framing right over your desk. Plus, there's a listener survey we'd love you to take, so we can find out who you are. Please visit, take the handout, listen to Mark discussing emptying your inbox, and take the survey by clicking on the big 5 in the right-hand sidebar.
This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to Work Less and Do More, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!
- Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster
- Handout on keeping an empty inbox
- How to Say "No" episode
- Interview with Mark Forster