Quick tips on Processing your e-mail inbox

EmailI found a great article by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders on how to keep your e-mail inbox under control. There are a few people at the Law School I work at that have enormous inboxes… One individual has over 20,000 messages in his inbox. One day I got a call from him because his e-mail program (Outlook) was crashing on him. It turns out that Outlook does have an upper limit on the number of message it can hold in an inbox.

Here are the highlights from the article:

The basic idea is to firewall processing as a discrete phase you go through no more than every hour or two at the most. For God’s sake, don’t live in your Inbox if there’s any way you can avoid it.

Processing determines as quickly as possible what, if anything, to do with each piece (in ascending order of urgency and importance):

  • delete it
  • archive it
  • defer it for later response
  • generate an action from it
  • respond to it immediately (if it—literally—will take less than 2 minutes or is so Earth-shattering that it just can’t wait)

Then as often as time allows, I return to the response and action folders and crank through as many replies and complete (or generate) as many todos as I can—usually in 5-email sprints.

The critical point, as ever, is to focus on action and not on the administration and housekeeping. If the action is just a response, respond. If it requires more than a return email, either do it or get it in your “next actions” and keep moving.

As I said in the Google Group post, “you have to remember you’re in the business of making sandwiches—not deciding the prettiest way to stack the customers’ orders.”

Zen slap: An email auto-check set for every minute means 60 potential distractions every hour, or almost 500 per day. Look back at a week of your emails and ask yourself: how many distractions was that really worth? How much crucial, instantly actionable email did I receive to make it worth shifting my attention over 2000 times?

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