I'm a big believer in having a system, and I know the same life hacks don't work for everyone. But here's something that's served me well during the past couple of years: The Single Screen System. It's effective because of its simplicity: you just commit to keeping no more than one screen of active e-mails in your in-box at any given time. Everything else gets put in its place, making your in-box more of a throughway than a parking lot.
Now, if you're the type of person who gets a couple hundred e-mails a day, I know what you're thinking: "That's impossible." But here's the thing: as someone who gets a couple hundred e-mails a day, I can assure you that it's not impossible. In fact, it's much, much more impossible to try to deal with an in-box full of 1,000 messages. Or, worse yet, an unknown number.
This is how I strive for my in-box to look (names of senders and folders have been blurred to protect the innocent):
Notice that nice swatch of white space at the bottom. You can immediately see the biggest benefit: at a glance, I can see every e-mail I have yet to deal with. No scrolling. No sorting. No guessing. If I don't see it immediately, it's handled, one way or the other. (So, where are all my other messages? I'll get to that in a minute.) That's not only efficient, but it's a lot less stressful, too.
Now, it's not less stressful because it magically makes things disappear. (This isn't the equivalent of a nine year-old cleaning his room by jamming all his toys under the bed.) Keeping your in-box down to 27 items or less (my magic number) doesn't mean I only have 27 things to do: it just means I only have 27 e-mails to deal with. The key is that it prevents me from trying to use the e-mails in my in-box as a to-do list. Since e-mail has no built in reminders that can help you keep track of priorities, it's not designed to help you stay on task. Even worse, out of sight e-mails tend to be out-of-mind e-mails, which leads to either wasted time re-reading them over and over or worrying about what you might be forgetting.
E-mail should be used exactly how it's intended to be used: to send and receive messages. That's it. It should be just one of the tools you use to keep your communication house in order. For example, to help keep my priorities straight, I put my to-do list and calendar to serious use, turning e-mails into tasks and appointments with a simple drag-and-drop. How is managing 150+ tasks and an infinite number of calendar items better than managing a bunch of e-mails? Well, to-do lists can be sorted by date and/or priority, allowing for you to focus only on what's most important today or this week, and calendar items are inherently date-driven and can be automatically recalled with built in alarms. The key is to use your calendar and tasks together, knowing which items belong on which list. To steal a tip from The David Allen Company's Kelly Forrister:
If you need to take action ON a day or time, put the action reminder on your calendar. If it needs to be done BY a day or can be done ANY day, organize it on a Task list.Two other tools that make the Single Screen System work are folders and "Good to Know" notes. The folders are easy to explain: they're where you put messages not tied to an immediate pending action. So what are "Good to Know" notes? They're things like your company's wireless network password (e-mailed to you from IT), your son's gift list (e-mailed to you by your spouse), or your running total of benefit days remaining (e-mailed to you by HR). If kept in your in-box, notes like these just take up space as messages that are no longer actionable. And they inevitably get lost, causing you to ask for them again, which just wastes everyone's time. They need a home--and it's not your in-box.
Once you have a handle on these tools, it's time to get serious about building your Single Screen System. Here's how you get started:
1. Schedule time to clean out your in-box. The first step is to get your current in-box down to no more than a few e-mails. You'll need to build folders to hold e-mails that don't need to stay in your in-box, and you'll need to know what you should drag to your task list, calendar, and "Good to Know" file. And, of course, delete as much as you can. It will take some time to get things cleaned up, but it's crucial to start fresh so you don't fall into old habits.
2. Get mail only when you're ready for it. One of the most underutilized productivity tools on your desktop is the "offline" feature (or its equivalent for non-Outlook users). By setting your e-mail to "offline" (see screen capture above, with arrow) you control the influx of mail, allowing you to read/sort/delete in phases--only when you hit the "Send/Receive" button--instead of trying to handle each message as it comes in. (One note: your sent messages will also accumulate in your Outbox until you hit send and receive--but this is a great way to give yourself a second chance to retrieve e-mails with forgotten attachments or that you never should have sent in the first place.) If you don't do anything else, follow this step. You'll be amazed at how much time you save by handling e-mails a few times a day instead of continuously throughout the day.
3. Four choices: Act, file, hold, or trash--decide immediately. That's every possibility for each e-mail you receive, and you should know almost immediately which choice is right:
- "Act" e-mails can be closed out in 5 minutes or less (such as someone e-mailing you for your fax number or a yes or no question that doesn't require a lot of research)
- "File" e-mails are those that you need to either convert to a task, calendar, or "Good to Know" item (or add to an existing item), or that require no immediate action whatsoever.
- "Hold" e-mails are the rarest kind--the ones that need to stay in your in-box. Maybe you're waiting for an answer from someone else, and you don't know whether you'll get it in 2 mins. or 2 days (and remember, you could always manage the latter by moving it to your task list...sounds inefficient but it's better than reading the same e-mail four times--or forgetting about it altogether).
- "Trash" e-mails--well, that's self-explanatory.
5. Cut yourself some occasional slack--but not too much. After a couple of weeks using the Single Screen System, you'll be very good at not letting things get out of control--when possible. But there will be times when you need to cut yourself some slack (when you're out of the office, when you have to stay online because you're waiting for an urgent message, or when you get back from vacation). The key is to get back on track as quickly as possible, so that you limit the amount of time you spend getting your system back in shape. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to get back to Single Screen nirvana.
If you follow these steps, the Single Screen System certainly will improve your productivity, but it also does something much more valuable: it will make you a better communicator. Why? Good communicators listen, and they have a well-honed message that's delivered at the right place and time. By organizing your messages, and by limiting distractions, you gain the time you need to focus on the task at hand, whether you're on the sending or receiving end of a message. That allows you not only to do more work, but to do better work, too.
More "e-mail triage" ideas at Lifehack.org.