How To Tame a Mail-Eating Monster in Five Easy Steps

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After once again stumbling to an unreplied e-mail message received a month ago that I had completely forgotten about, I decided that now it’s finally time to take over my inbox. I collected a list of tips and ideas to save me time and effort, and make sure no message is left unprocessed, and then started implementing them one by one.

Results are looking more and more promising as we speak. If you’re struggling with managing your inbox, struggle no more, check out the ideas and join me in beating the dark, mail-eating inbox monster.

As a rule of thumb I want you to think of your e-mail inbox as a river. Mail flows into it, and once you’re done with the mail, it continues its way with the waves. When everything goes well, it’s almost as if you just watch the water flow. But when mail starts to get stuck in the rocks in your river, it piles up, slowly forming a dam that makes it hard to keep your mail flowing.

Here are the best tips I’ve found for preventing my mail river from getting stuck:

  1. Keep your inbox empty: Create folders for different topics such as business, blogging, personal or freelance writing, and move your e-mail messages from the inbox to those folders when you are done with them. This way you know that whatever is left in your inbox, is something you still have to do something with. Keeps things much clearer, when you don’t have to dig through hundreds of messages to see if there still is something you missed. (Leo Babauta is also a fan of an empty inbox, and does a similar system but with only one folder – archive)
  2. Process your e-mail when you first read it: This is something you can’t do every time, but it’s a good principle to try to follow. It will save you time because you’ll only have to read the message once.
  3. Dedicate time for e-mail: Doing this will help you in achieving the tip #2. If you go through your e-mail only at specific times, you are not tempted to just skim the messages and go back to other things. Productivity gurus like Tim Ferris will also tell you that getting rid of the habit of constant e-mail checking will improve your overall performance dramatically.
  4. But in order to maintain a friendly and approachable image, reserve enough time for e-mail: If one extreme is to only process your e-mail once a day, the other is the idea of immediate response supported by the approachability guy, Scott Ginsberg. In his books he tells that he replies to his e-mails right away, and his contacts are positively surprised every time. This, of course, isn’t good for getting things done (unless your work is all about e-mail), so I think we need a compromise. For example three times a day: in the morning, after lunch, and in the evening.
  5. Don’t sleep with unprocessed e-mail messages: And finally something interesting I found just yesterday. A simple idea that sounds like it should be the perfect backup. If you still have e-mail messages in your inbox when you’re about to go to sleep, you can’t go to bed. This little pressure might be just the thing needed to make sure you get your e-mail done in your dedicated e-mail time slots.

With this simple system in place my e-mail is now flowing nicely and the e-mail inbox becoming a friend rather than a dreadful monster.

How about you, do you already have a process for handling your e-mail? Or some good tips to share? Let’s share ideas, and as a result all of us will have a stronger than ever control over our inboxes.

6 thoughts on “How To Tame a Mail-Eating Monster in Five Easy Steps

  1. I think I should warn that inbox maintaining can steal your productivity. The most tempting icon is the mail program’s icon showing new message. Or how interrupting is the sound effect of the new mail. Maybe one could set up a long refresh timer for the new mail fetching…

  2. Good point, Pepez!

    A good idea related to this is to turn off the new mail icon / sound effect. I have done that at work, and now only check e-mail whenever there is a good moment for it (I haven’t still fully implemented the idea of checking e-mail only 3 times a day… but I’m getting there.)

    It makes a huge difference. For the better. Now I’m not distracted by each spam message that comes to my inbox, and can concentrate better on what I’m doing at that moment.

    The downside of course is that sometimes someone sends something urgent through e-mail (you shouldn’t send urgent questions by e-mail, should you?) and then they are surprised when I don’t reply within the next 15-30 minutes. :)

    But that doesn’t happen too often.

  3. Hey Jetro! I’m glad you found the tips useful. I also just finished going through my e-mail inbox and organized all the remaining message backlog. Now, I can go to fully implementing my e-mail tips too ;)

  4. I started enforcing rule #1 a couple of weeks ago after I had a similar “oh crap, how did I miss that email from a month ago?!” moment.

    The only time I leave something in my inbox is when it needs to be replied to. When it’s something I need to fix before responding, I leave it in the inbox as I fix it. It sort of works as an immediate to-do list.

    I get a small enough volume of email that I can just check it when it comes in, or when a good stopping point in whatever I’m doing comes in. (except for when I get automated site-down messages, then I get a flood of one every minute for however long the site is down…annoying).

    Most mail I get means that there’s something I have to do or fix, so I actually have to resist the urge to ignore it and keep on working what I’m currently doing.

    Rule 5 is a good one. I know there have been times when I tossed and turned because I knew I had neglected to reply to an email.

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