Master Your Email Inbox with One Simple Rule

email fullIf you’re like so many people, your email inbox is one of the most serious time sucks – and energy sucks – of your day.  Ask yourself:

  • Do you leave your email inbox open all the time on my computer screen?
  • If not, do you check your inbox incessantly to make sure that nothing new has arrived?

If you’re guilty of either then you’re wasting time every day and kidding yourself about your true effectiveness.  Worse yet, you may be playing right into the hand of those nagging feelings of being overwhelmed.  Here’s a simple way to break those habits and became more productive in the process.

First, the obligatory confession.  Yes, I use my email inbox as a holding bin – a reminder of things that will require my attention in the future (but just not right now).  The email inbox can be procrastination’s most silent and powerful ally.  For me, it often is.  Leaving an email in the inbox helps rationalize not doing something right now you’ve kept the email as a “reminder” that it needs to be done.  “I’ll leave this in my inbox,” you tell yourself.  “I’m not going to deal with it right now, but I will soon.”

Of course “soon” really means “if I ever feel like dealing with it”.

Once you’ve read an email and left it in your inbox it becomes noise – nothing more than the wallpaper backdrop against which new and exciting emails appear fresh and interesting.  And what happens with wallpaper?  Once you’ve looked at it long enough you don’t even see it anymore.  It’s virtually non-existent, dully visible because you can see it but irrelevant because you’ve seen it so many times that it doesn’t register in your consciousness.

Over time, an expanding inbox of once-read emails left to become the wallpaper of your work day turns from a “to-do” list to a “to-don’t” list…an expanding catalogue of those nagging action items that you put off long enough for them to fester and broil into a fully matured procrastination distraction.  Get enough of those in you in-box and you eventually just quit looking at them altogether.  They become invisible.  And neglected.

Listen, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I was the guy who left the inbox open on one screen and worked on another.  I dedicated an entire screen to the message “hey, look what you AREN’T doing” and left it in front of me all day every day.  Talk about masochism.

But lately I’ve made a simple change in the way I deal with my inbox, and it’s helped on a couple of fronts.  I still allow myself to check email whenever I want to.  When I do, though, I impose one simple rule.  Before I leave, the total number of items remaining in the inbox must be less than or equal to the number of items that were there when I began.  That means that for every new email I leave in the inbox without completely resolving, I have to resolve and delete at least one old email that I had left during a prior session.

What does this accomplish?  First, I find myself checking my e-mail less frequently every day.  I know that if I open the inbox I’m going to have to actually deal with one of those previously procrastinated messages.  That translates into better work continuity and fewer mental interruptions.

Just as importantly, it consistently reduces the number of old emails languishing in the purgatory of my inbox.  Things are getting done, and I’m less prone to that nagging feeling of being overwhelmed when I look at an overflowing – and growing — inbox full of messages that have been neglected over time.

Do you think about how making slight changes in your work processes can make big changes in your effectiveness?  For years Whittle & Partners has helped owners, CEOs and leadership teams build a better business.  Check out our website for free tools you can start using today.   Can we help you run a better business?  We’re also on Facebook page and we tweet @jeffwhittletx.

Whittle & Partners is the home of The Alternative Board and The Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS®).

© JPECA, Inc. 2013.  All rights reserved.

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