I'm sure there are many people out there who find their incoming e-mail to be difficult to manage, but if you work in software, the deluge can be overwhelming. I've been doing some traveling lately and I'm quite far behind on my bailing.
Partly as a reminder to myself, I thought I'd document some of the techniques I use to keep my inbox hoarding to a minimum. I currently have 1042 messages in my inbox and this is how I'm going to cut that down by 100 a day until I get it back to normal (about 40 or so). One of the reasons I’m a fan of the Microsoft Outlook client is that it allows for these management techniques.
Tips for Inbox Hoarding Prevention
1. Use Outlook Rules
Outlook rules enable you to automatically deal with messages as they arrive. You can access rules by going to Tools > Rules and Alerts. The options for rules are extensive; whether you want to move, delete or forward messages automatically, you’ll find what you need under the rule settings. I use rules to file messages that are sent to distribution lists (DLs) and I’m on, but don’t necessarily have to read right away.
2. Use Formatting to Highlight Important Messages
I don’t see a lot of people use this option, but colouring messages as they arrive is a good way to identify the messages that need to be dealt with first. My instinct is to go to Rules and Alerts to set this up, but you actually do it by selecting a message from the person (or DL) that you want to colour and choosing View > Current View > Customize Current View.
Next, from the Customize View dialog, choose Automatic Formatting > Add. In the Automatic Formatting dialog, choose your conditions and then specify message coming from a particular person (or any other condition from the available options).
Once you’ve set the condition, you can apply custom formatting. You could have messages from different people formatted with different fonts, or bold, italics, etc. I like to use colouring to identify messages from my family and Metalogix executives.
Tips for Inbox Hoarding Treatment
Note About Size: If the size of your inbox is the most important consideration for you, start by sorting by Size. This will allow you to file or delete the largest messages first.
1. Sort by From
When I want to quickly cut down my inbox clutter, the first thing I do is sort by who sent the message. I find this to be a great way to eliminate the easiest messages to handle. This can include duplicate reminders about events or bill payments, etc. I just used this to file or delete 126 messages in about 10 minutes. (916 messages left)
2. Sort by Conversation
The next thing I’ll do is sort by Conversation and delete messages that are contained in latter messages within the same thread. To do this, simple sort by Conversation and then look for the dropdown arrow that indicates a thread of messages. When you expand the thread, messages that appear indented are replies that generally contain the message above. Some people may choose to do this as step 1, but I find that I don’t get quite as many this way, so I prefer to start with the action that reduces the most clutter. I just removed 65 more messages by deleting messages that were part of threads. (851 messages left)
3. Use Reminders Instead of Keeping Messages in Your Inbox
One of the reasons I have issues keeping my inbox tidy is that I use e-mail messages as my daily to-do list. This means that messages could potentially sit around because I’m waiting for the day that I need to take action on them. To prevent this, assign a reminder to the message and then file it into a temporary folder (such as “TODO”). To set a reminder on an e-mail message, right-click the message, choose Follow Up > Add Reminder. Once the custom reminder dialog opens, you can specify when you would like to be reminded of this message. The reminder will pop up just like an appointment, but clicking on it will open the e-mail—very handy. You can use this same technique to assign coloured flags to messages.
4. Use Folders (But Not Too Many)
Although Gmail has come along to claim that folders are unnecessary, I still use them. There are times when I want to look at all the messages related to a topic (e.g., a conference) but I don’t want to rely on search to decide which ones fit my criteria. The Gmail method of doing this is to use labels, but in my mind, if you’re taking the time to do that, you may as well be using folders. Either way, you’re adding metadata to the message and it takes about the same amount of time. I have, however, hit the bar of having too many folders (exactly the problem Gmail avoids) and I have recently started to ‘flatten’ my tree of folders. Once your folder tree is under control, it’s a lot easier to drag messages from your inbox to the folder view in Outlook. If you find that a deeply nested folder is being used a lot, you can either move it up the tree or add it to your Outlook favourite folders by simply dragging it into the favourites window.
5. Don’t Spend Your Time Writing Blog Posts When You Should be Cleaning Your Inbox
I’ll probably add more points when I think of them. I hope this is somewhat useful to all you e-mail hoarders out there.
Update: here’s a Microsoft at Work article on the same productivity topic: Empty your Inbox: 4 ways to take control of your email. The best part in there is the “4 Ds.”
Decide what to do with each and every message
How many times have you opened, reviewed, and closed the same email message or conversation? Those messages are getting lots of attention but very little action. It is better to handle each email message only once before taking action—which means you have to decide what to do with it and where to put it. With the 4 Ds model, you have four choices: