Wellness

Your inbox is a mess, and it's slowing you down. Here's how to fix it.

From ‘inbox zero’ to the ‘two-minute rule’, these tips will level up your email efficiency.

From ‘inbox zero’ to the ‘two-minute rule’, these tips will level up your email efficiency

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The email inbox can hold pretty much everything, so it seems like a natural archive for stuff we aren't ready to deal with but need to come back to, or aren't ready to delete forever. We often just leave these things in our inboxes as reminders or a to-do list of sorts. But an unorganized inbox is basically a giant digital crate heaped with e-scraps arranged in the order they were received, rather than according to importance or urgency or any other reasonable organizational principle. A chain letter from your aunt sits atop an urgent invoice atop an itinerary for your holiday next month. And anyone can slip a new item onto the top of the pile, heralded by a distracting notification. The result is an anxiety-generating fiasco of inefficiency.

There's a better way. Since email became a big part of our lives, smart people have been figuring out ways to spend less time on it without losing the advantages of such a convenient communication system. I researched what efficiency experts have to say about managing your email, tried their advice, and present to you what I found to be the best tips for how to make dealing with your email less stressful and more efficient.

Turn off your notifications: Unless lives depend on it, turn off your notifications. Notifications are distracting and cause anxiety. They make it difficult to focus on any one thing, which leads to multitasking, which leads to not actually getting anything done. emails, important and trivial, all give the same kind of notification, so your brain won't be able to distinguish real emergencies from spam. Unless you regularly get emergency email, you're better off just shutting off the notifications. Don't worry, you'll check it later.

Don't use your phone for email: Since the invention of the Blackberry, people have been using their smartphones to deal with emails. It's nice that your phone has the power to tell you what's in your email, but it's a very poorly designed tool for actually processing it. The tiny screen makes it harder to type quickly and accurately, and more difficult to take in lots of text quickly. Worse, it's tougher to drag and drop emails to where they are supposed to be. Doing email on your smartphone allows you to feel productive when you aren't at your workstation, giving you a way to temporarily fight the anxious sense that you should be working. However, it's far less efficient, so use a proper workstation when possible.

Batch email activity: The worst way to deal with email is to jump into your inbox whenever the idea pops into your head or when you receive a notification. When you do this, you're handing over control of your workflow to anyone in the world who has your email address. Instead, check your email at regular but infrequent intervals. Exactly how frequently you check will depend on your work and what you are using email for. However, for most people one to three times per day is plenty to deal with everything that needs to be dealt with without anything burning down. Further, it's usually a lot quicker to blast through 25 emails in one sitting than re-opening your email 25 separate times for each new item.

Empty your inbox, empty your mind: In 2007, blogger Merlin Mann coined the term "Inbox Zero", which was his name for a system of email management aimed at minimizing the amount of time you spend worrying about email and maximizing the time you use on the tasks that are important to you. The aim of the system is to keep your inbox empty, with the result that doing so would eliminate all the stress and inefficiencies mentioned at the beginning of this article. The concept was a sensation.

There are lots of good articles on how to achieve inbox zero. One of the things that's important to remember about inbox zero is that it's not about actually completing all the tasks in your inbox whenever you open it. Doing that still puts other people in control of your workflow. Instead, the idea is to move items out of your inbox into a place where it makes more sense to keep them. Put everything that you have to act on into whatever system you use to manage your to-dos, whether it's an old-fashioned list, a calendar, a bullet journal, or a task manager like Todoist. Put things you want to keep for reference into an archive. Put things you'll have to come back to in the near future into a "hold" folder. This allows you to deal with things in the order that is most useful to you rather than being pulled to and fro by whatever people happen to send you.

"Touch once": One of the key principles for inbox zero is what the people at Asian Efficiency call the "touch once" rule. You're only checking your email at specified times, and when you do open it, you're not there to completely resolve every issue you find. You're there to move items out of your inbox and into wherever it needs to be for you to manage it most efficiently. If you leave emails in your inbox, you'll wind up opening them and deciding what to do with them (now, later, leave to sit) over and over again. This is a waste of time. Touch once means making a decision as soon as you open an email, even if that just means storing it somewhere with a notification to follow up at a specific later date.

The two-minute rule: This is a rule made popular by the productivity book Getting Things Done by David Allen. It's a very simple way of reducing the number of times something pops up in your brain. The rule can be applied to any incoming task, including email. If you open an email and can resolve it in less than two minutes, do it right then and there. The idea is that it would take you two minutes to file it, re-open it later, and get your mind back into it. Therefore, you're better off just using that first two minutes to get it off your desk completely. Even if you only adopt this one rule, you'll find you save a lot of time.

Email is potentially a much more powerful tool than the snail variety. But because it allows us to send, receive, and hold onto so much information, the instrument can sometimes dominate the master. Following these tips can help you get your email back under control.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter. 

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