Mastering your inbox is easier than you expect. With an effective system in place:
- Emails are automatically sorted so that they receive attention at the appropriate time.
- Unnecessary clutter is pushed aside or eliminated.
- The ease with which you handle email messages immediately improves and becomes even more efficient over time.
Of course, it's essential that the system be easy to setup and maintain.
Begin by considering two dimensions for the messages you receive: urgency and importance. As a way of assessing the urgency dimension, consider whether the item is actionable or just for reference. Actionable items are often, but not always urgent. Reference items can be important, but are rarely urgent.
The diagram below shows the two dimensions and suggests how you'd ideally time the action required for messages falling into each of the resulting quadrants.
For clarification, evaluate a few examples:
"Hey, if you don't get back to me in the next 10 minutes, we're going to lunch at Tacorama without you!" Urgent, but probably not important.
"Attached is the proposal we'll present to XYZ Corp next week. Please carefully review it and be prepared to answer any questions that could derail the deal". Clearly important, but you'll probably set aside dedicated quiet time to review the it. It's not urgent.
Set aside the dimensions concept for a moment as we begin to conceive of a structure that'll automatically separate your email for efficient handling.
After reviewing the examples that follow, consider how you might group or categorize your messages based on their sender. At this stage, simply write down the name of each group as it comes to mind. Don't spend time trying to analyze or perfect the list.
Customers, clients, members or patients
Select the appropriate name and add it to your written list as your first group.
If you're an occasional user of social media, a single "Social Media" group is sufficient. Those who are active on multiple social media sites should create at least one group for each service, i.e. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.
If you subscribe to numerous newsletters, add two groups: High Value Subscriptions and Low Value Subscriptions. Don't allow more than a few subscriptions to flow to the "High Value" group. For those who rarely subscribe a single box is sufficient.
This is a group to handle your personal correspondence. If you have a large number of friends with whom you correspond, add additional groups, i.e. high school friends, friends from work, friends from college, etc.
Add one more more lists for emails from online vendors.
One group is typically sufficient for all your bills.
Note: Every incoming email does not need to belong to a group. As you receive ungrouped emails, additional groups will become obvious. The best way to build an ideal groups list is to let it evolve slowly and naturally over time. Don't force it or be in a hurry to finish.
Reading Your Email
For the moment, imagine that your email is automatically being sorted into folders. These folders correspond to list of groups you've just created. (We'll address "how to" automate the process in Part II of this post.)
Conveniently, you'll find that sender based groups correlate with the "importance" dimension of the diagram. As you check your email, simply start with the most important group. You'll no longer be forced to wade through the clutter posed by lower priority items. You'll probably be surprised at the significant impact this arrangement will have on your processing efficiency.
And the benefits don't end with easy identification of high priority items. Groups also make it easy to treat low priority items in an appropriate manner. Having a busy day? Select a few of the lower priority folders (for example, advertisements from vendors) and simply delete the contents without reviewing them.
You'll find that grouping your emails has a myriad of additional benefits; many that you'll have to experience to appreciate. For example, the "urgency" dimension suddenly becomes manageable because the lack of visual noise makes it easy to skim important groups for items that require prompt action.
Now that we've reviewed the concepts, the next and final part of this post will detail how to apply them.