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A 2-Step Solution to Tame the Email Beast

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I call it “the shiver” -- the physical manifestation of discomfort when an undesirable task screams for my attention. Exhibit A: My overflowing email inbox. (shiver shiver shiver) I’m going to make a wild guess here and assume that your inbox is also far from empty and perhaps also gives you the shivers.

The shiver is a tensing up in response to an unappealing and unfinished task. Every time I shiver I expend a little energy. What do I get in return? Zilch. Constantly expending energy with no reward in return is a recipe for one thing: burnout. Is email a helpful tool or an oppressive burden? Does it make you more productive or does it just add to your stress? The answer is … both.

Related: Make It Stop! 5 Techniques for Managing the Email Onslaught.

There is a way to optimize the positive aspects of email and to strike back at the monster it can so easily become. Taming the email beast is a two-step process. Once you tackle the first step, the second is relatively easy. Step one: get to zero. Step two: stay there. It’s easier than you think!

Getting to zero. The first time I ever even thought about completely clearing out my inbox, I had amassed 5,000 emails. That was an overwhelming number, until I realized an important fact: 99 percent of them were worthless. At best, they were one minuscule step above junk mail, and most of them didn’t even qualify as that. Why was I hanging on to so much worthless junk? Or rather, why was I letting it hang on to me?

The first part of getting to zero is to fall in love with your delete button. Make it the norm to have a finger resting on the delete button any time you check your inbox, and then be downright trigger-happy. Think of it in terms of setting new speed records for deleting messages. (Here’s the safety net: deleted email goes to your trash and stays there until you empty it.) The people in the offices near you should become accustomed to an incessant tapping sound coming from your space as you delete like the wind!

The next part of step one is to David Allen your messages. If you’ve never read his book, Getting Things Done, you should. My adaptation of Allen’s principles provides a four-step hierarchical process for email management:

  • Option 1: Delete it.
  • Option 2: Delegate it. Find the appropriate person to forward messages to and then delete them from your inbox. This is particularly important when you are doing your initial purging.
  • Option 3: Do it. Follow the two-minute rule: If you can accomplish a task in less than two minutes, then do it right away. You will be amazed at how many emails can be responded to in very small amounts of time. Reply quickly to any and all messages that you can respond to in less than two minutes and then delete them. Important: if you find an email message requiring more than two minutes of your time, choose another option for it.
  • Option 4: Defer it. Designate a specific time to deal with specific messages and enter these times as tasks on your calendar.

Related: It's Time to Focus and Reclaim Your Productivity

After you’ve David Allen’d the pile of messages in your inbox, put any remaining email messages into folders. Every email program on the planet allows you to set up folders. Once you’ve created and labeled several folders to hold your email messages, you might still have some lingering, hard-to-categorize messages. (I call these the “iffys” and they can pile up by the hundreds if you don’t watch it!) For any iffy messages, create a folder called “emails I’ll probably never get to but feel guilty about deleting.” Put all of the remaining messages into this folder (trust me, you won’t miss them!) and then take a moment to gaze at the glory that is your newly emptied inbox. (Cue the heavenly choir singing a single note.)

Staying at zero: Daily dumping. Once you get your inbox to zero (it’s a great feeling!) you will be motivated to keep it there. Adopting a few simple practices will equip you to achieve this.

  1. Designate specific times to check email. It’s just plain bad time management to handle every email as it comes in. Turn the darn thing off for 90 minutes, get some work done, and only check your inbox during the times you’ve designated for that. (If you’re accustomed to clicking on your email multiple times an hour, this will take some adjusting. But you can do it! Keep your eyes on the prize.)
  2. Go into your email sessions with the four David Allen options in mind. Remember that the first option is always delete.
  3. Resist the temptation to say to yourself, “I’ll get to that later.” This usually happens because we are casually perusing our emails vs. strategically using our time to actually make decisions about them. I’m certain that the vast majority of the 5,000 emails that took up permanent residence in my inbox began with me making the pseudo decision to “get to that later” -- over and over and over.
  4. Make it a game, and celebrate the victory. Looking at my completely empty inbox brings a smile to my face. Everything is accounted for and there is nothing hanging over my head. Go me!

Allowing email to burden you and chip away at your productivity is dumb. Work smart, avoid burnout and embrace the freedom of an empty inbox. There are enough things in life to give one the shivers -- the tyranny of email need not be one of them.

Related: 5 Tips to Take Control of Your Inbox

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