There’s a lot of hype around the concept of “inbox zero,” a phrase that means you have a totally empty inbox. It’s not a new idea: you feel less stressed when you’re organized and confident that you’ve addressed all inquiries to your inbox. When you have tons of email, it’s common to stress about what you could be overlooking, what’s been forgotten, and what’s left lurking in the unread sections. So how do you manage your incoming mail?
My system is pretty simple. I set up email folders in Outlook when I first started my position. I took a few minutes to look at my predecessor’s system and made notes on what areas her folders included that I thought would be good for emails I’d want to keep. I overlooked the folders that didn’t make sense to how my brain categorizes things. I started with a scattered list like this:
- Articles to Share
- Social Media
- Staff Meetings
As I began working, I would think for a second about each email and see if it fit into one of the folders I had created. If it didn’t, I would create a folder and then respond and file it.
After a while, I had a good list of folders. After a few months, I looked back at my folders and found that I could combine some. In 2013, I decided which folders needed to have separations by year. For example, my Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs folder has sub-folders for Programs/Events, Meetings, and Membership. Each of those is broken down into 2012 and 2013. I could keep up this progression for many years and still be organized under the same main headings.
Once an event or committee position has ended and I don’t think I’ll need to refer to the emails for a while (or maybe ever, but that’s a decision for later), I move the folder to my “Archive” folder. That way it’s still searchable, but doesn’t show up in my main list because I don’t need it cluttering my view.
I only delete emails that I know I will not need again. And to keep my inbox clear from spam, I don’t use my work email as a contact for any non-work projects. I turned off social media notifications long ago because I check those accounts daily and don’t need hundreds of superfluous emails. I try not to get too pedantic because I can always use Outlook to search specific folders or to search my entire inbox, and I shouldn’t spend an unnecessary amount of time thinking about where to file an email.
You can imagine my shock after a recent conversation with some work contacts where I found out that they keep hundreds and even thousands of emails in their inboxes. No joke! They either leave them as “unread” so they know to address it later, or they use color coded flags to signify what needs to be addressed in which way. Never wanting to erase emails, but also never creating a system of folders, they amass huge quantities of read emails that have been taken care of, but remain dead in their inboxes. That would give me so much anxiety that I would probably snap one day and wander into the woods with nothing but a tarp and a hatchet, never to be seen again.
Not everyone would love my system; some people work much better categorizing by date or sender, but the point is that you should have a process that works for you. If your system doesn’t work for you, then you need to get a new system! And remember, there is always a time commitment involved in making even the most helpful changes, but a few minutes to outline your system and create the bones, then a few seconds every day and ten minutes at the end of the week to file things you’ve answered will pay off in a big way. Regular cleaning will save you from wasted opportunities and time spent searching or just plain not responding.