Email Overload: How to Tame Your Dragon — I Mean Inbox

By February 17, 2015Exchange

email overload4,000+ messages. That’s how many items I had in my inbox a few weeks ago. As I stared blankly at my screen, I thought, “Something’s gotta give!” In addition to the staggering amount of messages, there were dozens of reminders showing in my Outlook task notification window. In the navigation pane, there were dozens and dozens of folders created by me to help me “organize” the dearth of email I receive. Sound familiar? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, right?

Unsure of what to do next, I decided to query my co-workers to determine how they manage their inbox. The responses I got were many and varied. What follows is what I decided to do, and how my new methods allow me to keep my inbox down to just a handful of messages on a regular basis.

First, let’s review some of the input I got.

“That’s a great question. I have had to put Outlook Alerts on a lot of email. Not sure this is the best plan. Subfolders with alerts seem to work ok, though, there are probably better ways of doing it. “

“I’ll just have to show you what I do if you’re interested.”

Hmmm….let’s keep it moving. Here’s a response that I liked and acted on:

“Here’s what I do:

Under inbox I have five folders:  Reply, Waiting, Archive, Alerts & Backup Reports.

If I’m waiting on someone in an email thread, it goes in waiting.

If it is something I need to reply to that requires some time to gather info, etc. it goes in reply.

I have rules set up to dump alert emails in to alerts and backup reports in backup reports.

Everything else goes in archive. It was a hurdle for me to get out of the habit of having a folder for every customer, vendor, etc.  IMHO, there’s no point in that since everything is searchable and you can categorize.

Finally, I don’t use Outlook for tasks/action items or keeping documents and information. If a customer emails a request, I forward it to CW (edit: think CRM / ticketing). If a task is part of a project, or something I can’t open a ticket for I forward to my task manager …If it is information or documents (i.e., “…here’s our ISP cut-sheet) I forward to Evernote. I have quick steps to do all this.”

To add weight to this response, it came from one of the most successful members of our team. So, I decided to take this and make it my own. My goal: make it to Inbox Zero.

What’s Inbox Zero? I took to Bing and found a site named “What Is” (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/inbox-zero) that describes it as follows:

“Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.

Inbox Zero was developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann. According to Mann, the zero is not a reference to the number of messages in an inbox; it is “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.” Mann’s point is that time and attention are finite and when an inbox is confused with a “to do” list, productivity suffers.

Mann identifies five possible actions to take for each message: delete, delegate, respond, defer and do.”

My take away? “…when an inbox is confused with a ‘to do’ list, productivity suffers.” Ah…<forehead slap> That’s what I’ve been doing for years. So, here’s the approach I took:

  • If I need to reply to something that can wait a few days, I move that email to my Reply folder.
  • If I’m waiting on a response from someone, I put that email in my Waiting folder.
  • If someone sends me something interesting that I want to review later (like a web article), I put that in my Review folder.
  • If someone sends me something that I think I’ll look at repeatedly in the future (like a how to tech article), I use the One Note plugin in Outlook to save that email for easier reference and viewing. That’s right – no Evernote for me. I’m sipping the Microsoft Kool-Aid.
  • If the email is something I need to act on and can’t do so immediately, I reply back to the sender to acknowledge their request (this is a customer service step), and I include the email address tied to a third party task manager in the BCC field. This creates a task for me to act on. Then I move that message to my Filed folder.
  • I now have recurring time scheduled to review each of the above referenced email folders and my task manager.  I schedule / complete things based on that review, and put items in our internal ticketing system as needed.
  • I’m using Outlook’s Quick Steps feature to quickly file things, and I use inbox rules to automatically move things to my Review folder for things I can look at later.

Some of you might recognize this approach, as it borrows heavily from David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done”. The key for me was to get task management away from my inbox. Why? Because doing so keeps me from reviewing the same email repeatedly and from wasting valuable time.

The next thing I did was to roll-up my sleeves and process those 4,000 plus inbox messages using the steps outlined above. That took hours and hours to do, but well worth the effort. Here’s where things stand for me roughly two weeks later:

  • 4 items in my Inbox folder
  • 3 items in my Reply folder
  • 79 items in my Review folder. This is stuff I can read at any time – no rush.
  • 0 items in my Waiting folder.
  • 144,194 messages in my Filed folder. That’s a ton! But I can easily find things here using Outlook 2013’s search features. No need for tons of other folders because of that. Also, I could dump some of that out to a PST if I wanted to reduce the size of my mailbox, but my Exchange administrator hasn’t yelled at me yet.
  • 52 items in my third party task manager.

Here’s what my Outlook looks like now. There are a few other folders besides the ones I mentioned above; these are Outlook system folders.

inbox zero

Now – imagine a team of Systems Engineers using similar methods each day as we take care of you, our customer. My goal was to not only improve my inbox management, but to help our engineers do the same so that we can improve our customer service efforts. It’s a work in progress.

What are you doing to keep your email under control? Let me know by sending me an email! (I promise I’ll keep it organized.)