Eight Ideas to Help You Wade Through Inbox Muck

In a previous life, I was a Software Development Engineer in Test at the largest software company in the world. The team of extremely smart folks that I was on, developed a prominent e-mail application. I believe one of the goals was to keep customers in our e-mail inbox for as long as possible. It was designed with bells and whistles that alerted you when new mail arrived, beckoning you to deal with it in real time.

On any given day, I received over 200 e-mail items. Some were not important enough for me to be addressed in the To or Cc line, while others screamed for my attention with a “High Priority” tag. Out of necessity, I learned a number of ways to be more efficient with e-mail and ultimately, recouped time for real work. Perhaps I’m sharing tips that I shouldn’t. After all, the largest software company in the world spent millions to condition you to live in your inbox. But, if you are ready to deal with the muck in your inbox, try some of these tips:

1. Understand Your E-mail Application

Not all e-mail applications are designed the same. Some have nothing more than an inbox, sent items, and deleted items folders. Others are robust with functionality that can automatically move items from your inbox into other folders. Get to know your e-mail app and find out how it can help you. The goal is to make your e-mail application do as much as possible so your triage time is reduced.

2. Make Time to Read

Don’t leave your e-mail application open all day long, and don’t try to handle your e-mail responses in real time. E-mail was never meant to be a replacement for other means of communication. Your clients have access to all of your contact information from your business card, website or previous e-mail interaction. If they need your immediate attention, you’re just a phone call away. Instead schedule time to triage and read your mail. I recommend that you check your e-mail at the beginning of your work day; after lunch; and at the end of the day. Maybe 90-minutes total for the entire day.

3. Ditch the Bells

Most e-mail applications can notify you when new messages arrive. The bells and whistles are specifically designed to get your attention to immediately check every new item. If you decide to leave your e-mail running all day, at best turn off the alerts and notifications so your intrusive e-mail application can’t disrupt your workflow.  Stay focused on your task, your e-mail will be there when you check it later at your specified intervals. Don’t let your e-mail be the boss.

4. Create an Alternate Inbox

Filter what enters your primary inbox by creating another e-mail account just for nonessential e-mail. Use a free account from Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo and use that address for newsletters, sales solicitations, and notifications from social sites. That way, only e-mail from clients, prospects, and peers go to your primary inbox. Everything else goes to your alternate inbox.

5. Touch it Once

If your e-mail app supports it, manually triage the items in your inbox by flagging those that need immediate follow-up or response. Then, delete those that are noise, and move those that don’t require a reply at all, such as newsletters, to another folder. Follow this by taking care of your flagged items first followed by those that are read items only. Maybe schedule time to read newsletters one day a week.

6. Category Triage

All the e-mail that is delivered to your inbox probably shouldn’t have equal importance. A newsletter does not have the same urgency as a response from a client. Before you begin reading your e-mail, decide what’s important and delete the junk and items you know you won’t read. Move the newsletters to a folder in your e-mail application marked “Newsletters.” If you subscribe to a P2P site move those items to their own folder. The idea is to generalize the category of each item and get it in the appropriate folder.

7. Priority Triage

Apart from messages that are marked with a specific priority by the sender, use three levels of priority and act on them accordingly. For example, those sent directly to you, where your name is in the To line, are high priority. Items where your name is in the Cc line are medium priority. And, items that you’ve received by Bcc are low priority.

8. Clear Your Inbox

Think of your inbox like your traditional mailbox. When you go to your mailbox, you grab all the mail and don’t leave anything behind. Your mailbox is not a great place to store mail because it’s difficult to manage and next to impossible to find what you need when you need it. After your application has made a pass through your inbox, do your own triage on what’s left before you begin reading. Either flag it, move it or delete it. An empty inbox is a happy inbox.

Using any of these tips consistently will help to increase your productivity and may even preserve your sanity. Do you have a process that helps you navigate the muck in your inbox?