Simple Ways to Tame Your E-mail Inbox

Avoid e-mail overload with these easy time management tips.

By Karen Leland
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Photograph: iStock

You only need to open your inbox first thing in the morning to see that a crisis of e-mail overload is wreaking havoc with your time, attention, productivity and even peace of mind. Most people don’t have a good system in place for processing incoming messages quickly and easily. Instead, e-mails languish, gathering dust (and guilt), waiting to be dealt with. To tame your inbox and save your sanity, try these four time management tips from the book E-Mail In An Instant: 60 Ways To Communicate With Style and Impact.

*Apply the five-minute rule: Some items that pop up in your inbox require or inspire you to take immediate action. If the message you see can be handled easily and quickly (say within five minutes), do it now. Once done, delete the item or move it to the appropriate folder for storage.

*Be daring and delete: If an e-mail sits in your inbox waiting to be worked on for days, weeks or even months, you may be putting off the completion of the item for several reasons, including: It is too big to handle as is and needs to be broken down into bite-size chunks; the item is not clearly defined enough for you to act on; it is something you don’t really want, need or intend to do. If this last reason fits, there is no shame in hitting the delete button and saying so long to that message muddling up your inbox.

*Hand it over: Just because you received the e-mail message does not mean you have to be the one to execute it. A great strategy for clearing out your inbox is to transfer it to someone else’s. Considerations, of course, need to be given to the other person’s availability, ability and willingness, but the option of passing on a piece of the work to someone else is a real one. Ask yourself if you really need to be the one to handle an item.

*Put off today what you want to do tomorrow: Many items in your inbox are good ideas you would like to follow up on — just not now. Instead of letting the someday item sit in your active inbox file, create a “to-do,” “pending” or “someday” folder where you can keep tabs on messages you may want to take action on at some point in the future.

The key is to immediately clear the item out of your inbox and move it to another file where you can easily retrieve it when you are ready to work on it. Ask yourself, is it essential or important that this be done today, or can it wait? Would there be any serious negative consequences if I delayed doing this item?

If all else fails and you’re facing a case of e-mail overload emergency, use the seven-minute save. Open your e-mail inbox and then set your watch, alarm clock, computer or iPhone on a seven-minute timer. Now, starting from the top (the latest e-mail), go through and see how many items you can get completed and moved out of your mailbox using the four strategies above. You may not achieve e-mail management perfection in those seven minutes — but you’re certain to make progress.

Karen Leland is the best-selling author of six business books, including Time Management In An Instant: 60 Ways To Make the Most of Your Day. This modified excerpt was reprinted with permission of the publisher, from Email In An Instant © 2009 Keith Bailey and Karen Leland. Published by Career Press, all rights reserved.

For more stories like this, go to 10 Reinvention Do's and Don'ts

First Published May 9, 2011

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