Reducing Inbox Clutter: Part 2 – Prioritize
So in Part 1, I discussed ways to reduce the amount of email showing up in your Inbox in the first place, however, you still need to deal with the mail that does come in.
The most important thing to consider first when setting up a system to manage your email inbox is the nature of your job and how you personally organize your work. Someone who deals primarily with a single project or focus will have different needs than someone who manages multiple clients or projects simultaneously. Similarly, if you do more project-style work, you will want to utilize a different system than someone who primarily deals with requests as they come up in more of a task-focused way. Keep your preferred way of working in mind when considering these suggestions.
I will be making reference to Microsoft Outlook, since it has so many great organizing tools built in, but no matter what email client you use, you can probably do something similar to my suggestions.
Create the Right Folders
Most likely you will want to store at least some messages for future reference. Rather than leaving everything in your main “Inbox” folder, you should create some other locations for this “archive”.
I personally like to think of everything as fitting into one of 5 locations:
- Action Support: For items related to current projects and to-dos. This is a good parking spot for items which you are otherwise tracking on a task list or your calendar. Once you are ready to tackle the item, the email with the necessary reference information will be easy to find in this folder.
- Waiting For: Once you send a note out to someone else for more information on a task or project, you can park it here while you wait for a response.
- Deferred: For stuff which you may or may not ever get to. It might be a “Someday/Maybe” item if you follow David Allen’s GTD methodology.
The key to utilizing these first three folders is to review them on a regular basis (perhaps even setting up a recurring task or appointment on your calendar to do so) to make sure that nothing is falling through the cracks. The advantage of moving email to these folders is that your “Inbox” can be kept only for new items which you have not decided on an action for yet. Keeping a slender Inbox will help you feel more in-control of your email and workload.
- Long Term Reference: Create some subfolders related to specific clients, projects, or categories of information you want to hold onto for reference. If at some point in the future a client leaves or a project is completed, you can delete or otherwise archive the stuff in its associated folder.
- Temp: Let’s be honest – a lot of the email we get doesn’t need to be saved for posterity. If it relates to a request you have taken care of, a string of emails coordinating a location for a meeting held last week, or 90% of your other day-to-day communications, the chances that you will need to reference it next year is slim to none. Use this as a location to dump these things when you aren’t quite ready to delete them, but you most likely won’t need them again. When you create the folder in Outlook, right-click on it and select “Properties…” On the “Policy” tab you will likely have a selection of available policies. You can select something like “1 Year Delete” or “6 Month Delete” – or if you like to live on the wild side, “1 Month Delete.” Now, once an item has passed its “shelf-life”, it will automatically be deleted, keeping your folder lean.
Use Views to Sort Quickly
One great feature of Outlook is the ability to create and save different views. Based on your needs, take some time to create views that make sense to you. You can create views that sort & filter on categories, date, follow-up flags, people, and any other available data.
One other cool feature of views is “conditional formatting” which allows you to set up rules and have emails appear differently in the list view. Several conditional formats are already set up by default, so you can edit those, or create your own. One that I have set up is a rule to display messages on which I am in the “CC” line in a grey color, rather than the standard black. This tells me at a glance if a new message is most likely just an “FYI” and doesn’t need my immediate attention.
Using the “Conversation View” can help you keep track of all the messages related to a topic, and manage them as a group (for instance, moving them all to your “Temp” folder).
Set up “Rules” and “Quick Steps” for Automatic Sorting and Tagging
The “Rules” function allows you to define criteria and actions for different stages of your email message life-cycle. Use the “Create Rule…” option to see all the possibilities. You can apply rules to messages you have received, or sent; messages can be automatically forwarded, moved to a different folder, flagged, categorized, trigger an alert pop-up, and other things. The “Rules Wizard” will help you get started.
“Quick Steps” are a manual version of “Rules” – sequences of actions you can define which will run on a message when you click a button in the ribbon toolbar. A few such as “Reply and Delete” come preinstalled. You can create Quick Steps with multiple actions. For instance, I have one called “Done” with the following actions: “Mark complete”, “Move to folder – ‘Temp’”, “Mark as read”. Whenever I complete something in my Inbox, I select the conversation and click my “Done” button.
Build as You Go
As you use your systems and flow through your daily work, you will likely come up with new ideas for managing your email. Keep adding new views, rules, etc. as you identify a need. Soon you will have a completely personalized email management system.