Swift Kick in the Butt Series: Can you declare email bankruptcy? How to manage your inbox like an email Ninja.

Photo by R’eyes

This week in the series, I am going to focus on ways of finding more time, energy and balance.  In order to do that, we have to work smarter and not harder. It also means there will be a cleansing of all your mental, physical and digital clutter. 

Today is the day to start slaying the digital clutter!  Email.  I mastered this solution in less than 25 minutes.  You can too!

Are you an email Ninja?

I sure as hell wasn’t (until recently).  I was a slave to my inbox.

If you’re like me, you have slowly subscribed to more and more “things” over the years.  I turned around one day to find I had amassed more than 15,000 unread emails.  I estimate that 90% of my emails were from “stuff” that I rarely opened, or didn’t need.  Back in the olden days when I had maybe 10 emails per day, it was so easy just to delete the ones I didn’t need and move on.  Those times have changed.  Significantly.

I currently get hundreds of emails each and every day.  Whoa, right?  Email alone was sucking up my time in the ever-so-evil Quadrant 4!

If the sheer volume of my emails weren’t enough, I identified even more time and energy vampires in my email box:

  • Autocheck:  Mine was set to every minute.
  • Redundancy:  I was answering the same questions from people over and over.
  • Babysitting Tracking:  I hadn’t implemented any method to track emails that required action from others.
  • Offline vs. Online:  If I wasn’t near my computer, I had no way to access my emails via my existing Outlook program.  God help me if I was gone for a few days without my laptop.  Phawk, those emails sure built up!
  • Writing too much ‘stuff’:  Brevity was not my strong suit.  I spent way too much time composing my replies.
  • The spam.  Oh, GOD have mercy…the SPAM!  Why can’t Outlook see it for the obviousness that it was?

The Problem with Auto-Check:  An email auto-check set for every minute means you receive 60 potential distractions every hour, or almost 500 per day. I looked back at a week of my emails and asked myself: how many distractions was that really worth? How much crucial, instantly-actionable email did I receive to make it worth taking time out of my life to shift my attention over 2000 times?

(It was time for me to tackle it head on in a stealth-like manner, much like a Ninja.  I could either fix it or declare an email bankruptcy.  I decided to fix it for good.)

Here is how I fixed it:

  1. I ditched Outlook.   I created a Gmail account and imported all my email accounts into one place.  (See how-to’s: How to Switch to Gmail from Outlook, Gmail:  One Inbox to Rule Them All, and How to Merge Inboxes Using Gmail).  Not only is it web-based and accessible from any computer/phone with an internet connection, it also cuts the spam out of my inbox.
  2. Next, I set up folders:  Using a modified Inbox Zero method, I created the following folders –
    1. Do
    2. Delegate
    3. Defer
    4. Archive
  3. Then, I set up filters:  For items like newsletters that are interesting but not urgent, I didn’t want to unsubscribe from it but I didn’t want it to come into my inbox every time, either.  Same goes for items like PayPal or Amazon notifications.  For these type of emails, I created a filter in Gmail so they will end up in my “Defer” or “Archive” folders. With a filter, I’ll know exactly where to find it to read later…when I actually had the time to spare.
  4. Finally, I committed to scheduling email dashes:.  Now I have to manually check into Gmail, which is done only three times per day.  I set the timer for ONE Pomodoro in each dash and knock it out without interruptions.

Now that I had my new Gmail system started, I would log in during my scheduled email dash and handle each email session in manageable bite-sized tasks. 

I TRIAGE the emails in each session like this:

  1. I read each message that came in since my last log-in.  One by one I ‘triage’ them.
  2. Unless the email adds real value to my life or work, I unsubscribe.  Liberally.  Or, I report it as spam.
  3. After I unsubscribe from an email, that is when I will flat-out delete it.
  4. If I want to keep receiving the email and it is something I could read at my leisure, I create a filter for this and all similar/future emails to be filtered into the “Defer” folder.
  5. If it needs only a fast response (<30 seconds), I bang it out.  If my reply requires a more comprehensive response, I put it in the “Do” folder.  I do NOT respond to anything requiring more than 30 seconds of my time until I am done reviewing all my emails first!
  6. If the email can be handled (or needs to be handled) by someone else, I put it in the “Delegate” folder.  

Once everything has been triaged and put in their proper folders, then I get into Ninja mode:

  1. I take action and knock out all the items in the “Delegate” folder.  I leave those items in that folder until they are fully resolved.
  2. I take action and knock out all the items in the “Do” folder.  To simplify my responses, I use the following:
    1. I create and use a template for boilerplate responses to help manage answers to frequent email subjects.  This way I can manage requests that would have identical (or similar) replies over and over without having to type each one by scratch. Once they are completed or read, I put those items in the “Archive” folder.
    2. Respond with less words using sensible replies.  If people don’t like this tactic, I may end up using this as my email signature:
Q: Why is this email five sentences or less?
A: http://five.sentenc.es


3.  LAST FINAL STEP:  Once an item is fully resolved, it goes in the “Archive” folder or “Deleted” entirely.

Your recommended assignment for today, ah grasshoppahs

By investing a few extra minutes of your time today, you can save significant amounts of your time and sanity later.  Follow my steps above to become an email Ninja.

If you can’t do it today, put it on your Pomodoro list for later this week.

If you still don’t think you can invest in more than a few minutes of your time to get this done, just do this:

Subscribe to only the lists and newsletters that you actually open and read on a regular basis. Unsubscribe from the rest. You can follow them on Facebook or elsewhere if you think you might be missing something.

Every little bit counts!  Now, go slice and dice!

Update: In October 2012 I took this process one step further. Please see “Reducing my distractions even more

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