‘Tis the season–for looking at your inbox and realizing you’ve got months of messages stacked up and collecting dust.
Okay, so maybe your inbox isn’t quite that bad–but if you’re anything like most people, there’s a decent chance you’re spending this December wishing it could be at least a little less overwhelming. And what better time than a new year to start fresh?
Whether you’re aiming for inbox zero or just hoping to get a reasonable handle on your email, the right set of rules can go a long way in reshaping your habits and reframing email’s role in your life. Commit to these steps for 2019, and you can say “so long” to the days of the unmanageable inbox.
Rule #1: Stop leaving your inbox open all the time
No matter how important you are or how many emails demand your attention, leaving your inbox perpetually open on your desktop is almost certainly counterproductive. Think about it: How often do you try to focus on something and find yourself inadvertently flipping over to your inbox every other minute to see if anything new arrived? It’s human nature–and yet it makes your brain less focused and effective at completing other tasks.
The solution is simple: Pick a set number of windows of time for checking your email instead of making it an around-the-clock chore. The best part about this fix is that it can be customized to work for any sort of schedule and demand: If you can get away with triaging your email three times a day–once in the morning, once after lunch, and once before the end of your workday–by all means, go for it. If you need to check your email three times an hour–at the top of each hour, 20 minutes in, and 40 minutes in–hey, that’s okay, too. Either way, you’re breaking the habit of the constant back-and-forth cycle, which is both inefficient and detrimental to your overall productivity.
With any set schedule, in fact, you’ll end up getting through your inbox and the rest of your work more effectively–and losing out on very little by not seeing every message the second it comes in.
Rule #2: Follow a smarter triage policy for your inbox
You want to know the real secret of staying on top of an ever-expanding inbox? It’s something I implemented into my own routine many moons ago, and it makes a world of difference: When an email lands in my inbox, I never open it twice.
Now, hang on: That doesn’t necessarily mean I answer every single message as soon as I see it. For most of us, that wouldn’t be practical or advisable. All it means is addressing every message in some manner on first encounter. It’s the most efficient use of your time, and it’ll do wonders for keeping your inbox from turning into a disorganized mess.
So every time you open up the ol’ inbox, here’s your plan: Look at every message once and immediately put it into one of three mental categories:
- Something that doesn’t require any response or action
- Something you can respond to and be finished with in a matter of minutes
- Something that requires a response or action that you either don’t have time to deal with right away or that won’t be relevant until some later day or time
For every message in that first category, your task is easy: Archive the message immediately and get it out of your hair. For messages that meet the second condition, pound out a reply–keeping in mind that shorter emails are almost always more effective–and then archive the message. And for messages that fall into that final group, use your email app’s snooze function to send the message away to a time and day when you will be able to handle it or when it’ll be most relevant–whether that’s three hours, three days, or three weeks into the future.
The best part? If you end up needing to snooze the message again when your selected time arrives, that’s perfectly fine. What you’re ultimately accomplishing is an adjustment of how you think about your inbox–from a never-ending mess of backed-up messages into an always-organized list of tasks for any given moment. And with your newly instituted triage policy, you’re prepared to deal with that list quickly and effectively in every email-checking window.
Rule #3: Maintain a better email notification system for your phone
Smartphone notifications are the nemesis of productivity. Now that you’ve contained the counterproductive distraction of your desktop inbox and come up with a smarter method of triaging email, it’s time to do something about those incessant dings from incoming emails on your phone.