Managing Email: Overflowing Inboxes

While keeping up with the daily paper flow in one’s In-Box is a challenge for most businesses, the same situation is repeating itself in email In-Boxes. It is not unusual, during our time management training seminars and consultations, to hear that hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of email messages have collected in someone’s inbox.

Each time you fail to make an immediate decision on what to do with a note, it becomes clutter, just as the stacks of paper that accumulate in our offices do. This clutter is not only physical clutter but mental clutter, distracting us from the immediate tasks at hand.

Consider two ways that these missives accumulate. Start by imagining you left a totally empty Inbox and that you receive 50 emails a day.

Scenario One:
Fifty emails were waiting for you today, a conservative number, and you cleared out 25 of them, leaving the other 25 to handle at a different time. Tomorrow there are 50 new ones. If you again handle 25 and clear them out, leaving the remainder for another time, you start with 100 on the 3rd day. In a week, when you open your inbox, instead of the 50 that you began with that week, you now are looking at 225 things to make decisions about. Stress starts to build..

Scenario Two:
You receive 50 emails today and deal with 25 of them but do not delete them because you never know when you might want to reference that information again. Therefore tomorrow you have 100 emails in your Inbox as you start the day. You have to scan through all of them because some of the ones from yesterday may now require additional action, but you’re not sure which ones. The next Monday you’re facing 350 emails and dread the thought of having to work through them..

That’s just one week. Every day you have to scroll through the entire list and try to figure out if there’s something that needs to be done. Why not make a decision immediately on each email, moving it to the appropriate place for further action? It will eliminate that feeling of being overwhelmed as well as that sinking sensation of missing a deadline.

Just as I train people during seminars and one-on-one sessions to use a RAFT to navigate through the stacks of paper and keep from getting swamped, so will the RAFT method allow you to experience smooth sailing through your volumes of email.

My RAFT consists of four planks: READ — ACT – FILE – TOSS. Every item, whether paper or electronic, goes into one of these categories. A decision is made immediately. You know where every paper goes, how to find it again, and when to follow up.

Reading materials can be divided into two groups:

1. Casual reading: It would be good to have a chance to read it, but there’s no deadline, and it doesn’t relate to a current project. Have a casual reading folder set up that you can move this to and then periodically block a time in your schedule specifically for casual reading.

2. Reading with an accompanying action: Move it to your task list. If you’re using an electronic task list, drag it over and attach a date to it. If you’re using a paper-based tickler system, print the mail and drop it into the appropriate date.

This email requires further action on your part. Drag it to the calendar or task list on your email program and assign a date, or print it and put it into the specific date in your paper tickler system. To determine the date, always be asking yourself, “What is my NEXT step? When will I have a chance of getting to do this?”

If there is no action you need to take, you might want to keep it temporarily or else place it into your long-term filing cabinet.
1. Project Files: If it’s an ongoing activity and you want to track the progress, have a temporary folder on your desktop. You can delete the folder at the end of the project.

2. Reference Files: You want to retain the note for future reference, so you might print that and put it into your paper filing system, or save it in a related folder within ‘My Documents’.

Be liberal with the Delete key. So many people are afraid to toss out any mail, even if there’s nothing else they need to do with it. Just as in paper, the question to ask yourself is, “What is the WORST possible thing that could happen if I didn’t have this email?” If it’s not too bad, and if there are no legal or financial reasons for keeping it, then toss it.

Everyone has heard of the adage, “Handle a piece of paper one time only.” That shouldn’t be taken at face value. Instead you handle it only once as far as making a decision right away. Then you put it in the appropriate place to deal with at a specific time. Work your email the same way and cut down on daily stress.

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