Make space. Find peace. Feel joy.

Facing down my email inbox

23 March 2009

I freely admit that I’m an email packrat. Since my hard drive is large, I have no problem hanging on to emails I think might come in handy some day. This is a habit I’ve had since I started with email in the 90s. And I don’t intend to change.

I don’t get stressed by an inbox with thousands of messages in it, because I’ve never treated my inbox like a to-do list. Other people (particularly organizers) were incredulous when I’d mention that I had 7,000 (or whatever) messages in my inbox. They wondered why I didn’t use folders. I do use folders. Those seven grand were the uncategorized ones.

It wasn’t a problem, but I felt like I must be missing something, since everyone talked about the value of an empty inbox. About a year ago, I tried reducing the number of messages in mine. (I started at 6,000 and got it down to 1,500 before I stalled.) But the system I put in place didn’t really work for me, I think because the emails requiring action were filed into a “follow-up” folder and then I never looked at them again. So the numbers crept up.

But this year, I decided to try again. I think it might have to do with my memory getting worse. In the past I would remember that I needed to respond to an email and it didn’t matter that it had scrolled out of sight when more emails came in. But at 46, my memory isn’t a steel trap any more and things were falling through the cracks.

I was inspired by my friend Aby Garvey who recruited me to help her get her email under control. (I served as an accountability partner for her, along with www.dontbreakthechain.com.)

Aby’s goal was to have a certain (small) number of emails left her in inbox at the end of the day. Those emails were ones that required some action. If she kept that small number constant, that meant only a few things weren’t getting done the same day they came in.

After I saw her great success with this, I quizzed her a little more about it and decided to set a goal of doing the same. I created a folder called “Archive (handled)” which would contain all those emails that don’t require action (or were acted on) and that I didn’t want to categorize further.

The next step was filing the contents of my inbox so that all it contained were emails that required action. I started with 7,128 messages (I kept notes) and each day reduced that number by half. Finally, I got down to 74, all of them requiring some sort of action.

The trick has been to train myself to move the emails once I respond to them into the archive folder. My new goal is to have no more than 10 messages in my inbox at the end of the day. All those messages will require some action. I know I’m going to have to get there in stages. Today, as I write this, I have 25 messages in my inbox. (The fewest I’ve had since I got the computer.) I want to get it down to 15 by the time I leave the house this afternoon. And I’ll strive to keep it at 15 by the time I go to bed tonight.

I’m starting to get why people like having an uncluttered email basket. It’s been really rewarding to watch the numbers go down. As this becomes a habit, I think I’ll start to reap a lot of benefits in terms of staying on top of my communication with others.

Thanks, Aby, for your help and inspiration!

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