Today, as I write this, it’s still email debt forgiveness day: a day where you can respond to an old email without fear of judgement. Thank goodness because my email inboxes are a mess. This feels weird because more than one person has thanked me for helping them manage their inboxes.

Why even bother managing your inbox? Taking control of your inbox is a great way to reduce your stress and build more time and attention for Deep Work.

As part of trying to be more distraction-free, I wanted to talk about how I’ve managed inboxes in the past and what I’m going to be trying to do going forward. This has five parts.

  1. Separate your backlog from your current flow.
  2. Know your verbs.
  3. Batch process.
  4. Limit your inflow of recurring messages.
  5. Limit your outflow.

Let’s explore each of these in a bit more detail.

Separate your Backlog from your Current Flow

Mark Forster, author of several productivity books and all-around underappreciated author, tells us how to clear a backlog of email.

1) Isolate the backlog

2) Get the system for handling new stuff sorted

3) Keep working away at the backlog

So step one is to grab everything that’s currently in your inbox and dump it in a “backlog” folder. Then, once you’re on top of your current flow of email, you can address the backlog in pieces. This relies on the difference between what he calls “open” and “closed” lists in his book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management.

An open list is like your inbox – it can just as easily grow or shrink as items are added to it or taken away. A closed list has a finite number of items on it, and if you address the items on it, over time, it will shrink. Creating a “backlog” allows you to take the open list of your inbox and change it to a large closed list (the backlog) and a smaller open list (the inbox). Then, provided that you take care of the open list of the inbox regularly, handling the closed list will happen over time.

But how do we address the inbox?

Know Your Verbs

This video is worth the half-hour of your time (the first half is the speech, the second is Q&A). You can get a lot more of Merlin’s advice here.

What Merlin’s advice comes down to is that you have a limited number of verbs attached to each email. Each of these should be approximately two minutes or less.

  1. Delete (or archive)
  2. Delegate – move the task to someone else
  3. Respond – quick, two minute response.
  4. Defer – transfer to your to-do list, which should not be your email client.
  5. Do – quick, two minute action.

This will allow you to get in and back out of your email client, moving the actions forward without agonizing over each email, wondering what to do with it and how to handle it.

Batch Process

Leaving your email client open – especially with alerts on – just distracts you. (See my single-tasking post for more about this). To prevent this, select a few times a day that you will get in, process, and get back out of your email client. If needed, you can set up your email signature or use an autoresponder to reinforce what you’re doing. This limits the distracted time to a few times a day. Turn the notifications off on your phone — they hurt you more than they help you.

Limit Your Inflow

Unsubscribe to nearly everything. The information you are seeking is a quick search away. A simple way to look at this is the signal-to-noise ratio: sort by sender and look at the last five or ten emails from a specific sender. How many of those were useful? if 4/5 or 7/10 emails were useful, you might want to stay subscribed. But if you’re finding a much lower ratio, hammer that unsubscribe button. Gmail makes this easy as they have an unsubscribe at the top of the client, rather than digging for a tiny link hidden in the footer.

Bonus: if you have to “stay on top” of some specific field, consider using an RSS reader instead. Rather than going down rabbit holes of information as you process through your email, consider using a service like Pocket to gather together your entire read-later list and set aside reading time to read without distractions.

Limit Your Outflow

Finally, one of the simplest ways to reduce your email load is to send less email. If it’s going to take more than about five sentences perhaps scheduling a phone call or meeting would be a more productive use of time. Beyond this, write better email subject linesRemember that other people are going to have to read and decipher your email, and they probably don’t have great systems with strong verbs in place. Don’t bury the lede – why are you writing the email? Put that in the subject line. 

Your email debt is forgiven. Go forth and sin no more.


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