If your email inbox is anything like mine, it gets out of hand far too quickly. On an hourly basis I receive emails from colleagues at work, from my college, and countless miscellaneous corporations that I (moronically) clicked "subscribe" to their newsletter when making an online purchase. The torrent of emails seems to never end, and when faced with the task of actually going through it all to get it back down to empty, the sheer volume of unread messages causes me to simply defer the task indefinitely.
In David Allen's Getting Things Done, however, I have learned a few tips on how to deal with my emails in a far more effective way than just ignoring them. The two tricks I have are:
First, we need to use more effective labels. Personally, I use Gmail, and the Primary, Social, Updates and Spam labels are not enough to sufficiently organize my workflow. Perhaps these labels get materials into a relatively close ballpark, but we aren't going for "close." We're shooting for "correct."
David Allen in Getting Things Done uses a workflow diagram often to illustrate how "stuff" becomes "done." (For an up-to-date illustration of this diagram, click this button:
In this diagram, Allen has eight "folders" where inbox materials ought to end up. These "folders" are: Trash, Someday/maybe, Reference, Projects, Project Plans, Waiting, Calendar, and Next Actions. If an email is not actionable, nor is it something for the future or reference material, then it is trash. (Yes, you can delete all those Starbucks promotional emails.) If it is an email that might be handy in the future, stick it in the Someday/maybe folder. If the email is sheer reference material, hold onto that. Stick it in the reference folder. If the material IS actionable, then ask what the next action steps are. If the email requires more than one action step (ex. you receive a paper assignment due by the end of the week), stick that in your Projects folder. If anything has to do with plans for the projects, put it in your Project plans folder.
If the material IS actionable, and takes less than 2 minutes, JUST DO IT! Chanel your inner Shia LaBeouf and just get it done. (Make your dreams come true!) If it might take longer, then you can delegate the material, and put it in your waiting folder, or put it in either your calendar folder (which is material to do at a specific time) or your next actions folder (which is material to be done as soon as possible).
These labels will give you a far more efficient way to sort through your material. With a place for everything to go, you can get everything out of your email inbox, and into a place where it can be better dealt with. And it is important to note that organizing your material does not necessarily mean "doing" it right then and there. It just means putting it all somewhere in a way that allows you to actually make sense of what needs to be done.
The last tip is to take processing all of your emails one bite at a time (just like an elephant). Start at one end of your inbox (either your most recent or oldest end. Either is fine, really), and then just go through every email, one at a time, deciding where it ought to go. You will be surprised at how effective this is, and how empowered you will feel taking the mountain of emails down one bite at a time.
And my last bit of advice? Unsubscribe to everything that isn't necessary. You don't need the daily email from Costco. You'll be okay. Trust me, it's for your own good.