Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to have a clean inbox in 2010


By Heather Wardell

2010 is right around the corner, and a new year always feels like a fresh start. Don't your email accounts deserve a fresh start too?

Many people keep emails in their inboxes for days or even weeks or months, waiting to be handled. While there's no physical weight to that material, there's certainly psychic weight: some of those things are tasks that need to get done, some are waiting for someone else to do something, and some are just there because you don't know what they need or where to put them.

Follow these steps to clear them out, and you'll be able to start handling your email in a whole new way in 2010.

Prep work

Before we can get started, though, you need to do two things: move everything in your inbox to a new folder, and commit to always emptying your inbox by the end of the day.

It's the backlog that stresses people out, the hundreds or possibly thousands of emails awaiting your attention. Move them away and promise yourself that you will see an empty inbox at least once a day.

If your inbox is empty, you know you have handled every email. They've all been responded to, deleted, or filed if they have reference value. You're on top of your email, which is a great feeling.

At the moment, though, you still have your "new folder" of old emails. What to do with them? Let's dive into them now. You'll use the same set of steps to handle your new emails every day. It might take you days or even weeks to get through the backlog, and that's fine. Yes. It is. Those emails weren't being answered before, and now they will be. And each day you will completely empty the new emails so they will never back up again.

I recommend using folders (or labels if you're a Gmail user) and rules to separate your emails as they arrive. Ideally, every email that actually reaches your inbox is something that requires your attention, and everything else (mailing lists, announcements, and the like) is automatically sent to a folder for you to review when you have time. I'm not sure the ideal is possible, but you can certainly get close, closer than you probably are now. Creating rules is easy, and I've provided links for Outlook and Gmail instructions at the bottom of this article.

Examine one email at a time. You can apply these steps to a grand sweep of all of your emails at once, but it'll involve a lot more clicking and revisiting emails several times, and if you get interrupted partway through you'll only have to start again. So open the oldest email you have and run through the following questions. Don't leave that email until it's been deleted, processed, or scheduled for later. I know, it's hard, but stick with it. You'll be glad you did.

1. Has its time passed?

If this email is a reminder for a meeting last week that you attended, delete it. If it's a reminder for a meeting you forgot to attend, fire off a quick apology email if necessary then delete it.