Mandy French
How to clean out your inbox—and keep it that way

Get to “Inbox Zero” today with these steps.

April 14, 2014
By Mandy French, CPA

Email can be one of the electronic age’s most invaluable communication tools. If improperly managed, however, all those messages can clog an inbox and grind productivity to a halt.

We have all been there—booked to capacity with to-dos and yet buried in the seemingly ever-present pile of new emails that hinder our efficiency. If that’s the situation you find yourself in today, I want to challenge you to take control of your email.

At first, the very thought of email management is probably overwhelming. Yet I promise you that once you place a defined structure over your interactions with email, it will become second nature. I can make that promise because I myself have done it. These are the tools and tricks I use every day to keep my inbox under control and achieve what’s known as “Inbox Zero.”

The first step is to commit a set amount of time to catching up on the email overload you already have compiled. Depending on the size of your backlog, set aside an hour or more to slice, dice, and delete your heart out. If your backlog is in the thousands, catching up may require several dedicated catch-up sessions.  Rather than lamenting the time investment required, focus on the returns: decreased likelihood you will miss an important commitment or communication because it was buried, and increased emphasis on the important items that remain.  For those in an environment with document retention policies, this clean-out will also ensure you are in compliance with those policies.

Once you have caught up, you will also need to set aside a certain amount of time each day to deal with email going forward. During your catch-up time and on a go-forward basis, apply the following rules to cut through the email tangle:

The no-hesitation delete: Review your emails and quickly delete all those messages that can be deleted immediately. Do not hesitate! If it can be deleted, push the button and move on to the next message. This includes the collection of old newsletters and alerts you so diligently saved to read later. If it was not important enough to read when you first received it, delete it (and unsubscribe to reduce your email noise going forward). If it does not apply to you, delete it. If it is junk, mark it as such and delete it. The trick here is to be quick, decisive, and unremorseful. 

For-later filing: Emails that require retention, but not action, should be immediately filed into an appropriately named folder for future reference. A growing number of professionals retain emails in their inbox and rely on search options to find them later. This practice is inadvisable because every additional email in your inbox decreases the visibility of all the others. Those hundreds of emails that could quickly be filed are hiding emails that need your attention but are not receiving it.

The lightning round of response: Once you have deleted and filed, you should be left with only those emails that require response or action. First, focus on quick responses. Tackle any emails that can be responded to in 3 minutes or less, and then delete or file the original message as appropriate. While it is easy to put off the quick items in favor of the problem children, the biggest bang for your buck will be wiping out as many quick-response notes as you can. This is also the time to send “I will research your question and let you know by next Tuesday” type of responses on the emails that will require extra time. Set the expectation early that your response will take a set amount of time, and determine that window by thinking about the nature of the request and your current schedule. This both informs the recipient of your plan of action and relieves you of the internal pressure to respond as soon as humanly possible.

And, ACTION! This is the phase in your email management plan when you will be left with only those emails that require action on your part. These actions fall into the following three categories: High priority, delegate, and defer:

High priority—These are the rush items, with the red exclamation points and all capital letters in the subject line. Obviously, these will need to be worked into your schedule for the day. Rather than immediately starting to tackle them, identify when you will complete them in your to-do list for that particular day, and continue with your email management.

Delegate—There are often a few tasks on your list that can be shifted to other people. Identify those opportunities and forward the email to the appropriate person with an expectation of how and when he or she will complete the request. 

Defer—It is tempting to leave a message sitting in your inbox if you cannot yet respond or address it. A better strategy is to place the item on your calendar with a reminder that will prompt you when you are able to act. Then file the email for later reference. 

Following these steps will help you achieve “Inbox Zero,” or a close approximation of it. Then, the days of feeling overwhelmed by your inbox will be gone, replaced by days of email and task management efficiency.

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Mandy French
, CPA, is an assurance manager at Hogan Taylor LLP.