Clean Inbox

Having a clean inbox is vitally important to keeping you organized. A messy (or full) inbox can leave you feeling overwhelmed and afraid that you’re missing something. Here are a few tips on how you can keep a clean inbox.

Sift and Sort

This step needs to become a daily habit. Just like a filing cabinet, determine the titles of your folders or tags that you will use for sorting messages. Below are some of the subfolders/tags I use:

  • Clients (with a subfolder for each client)
  • Follow Up
  • Reference (with a subfolder for each topic)
  • Accounting/Finance
  • Potential Clients

I use Gmail, it allows me to assign more than on tag to a message. So, sometimes I may mark a message for my Client’s folder and for Follow Up. Eventually the Follow Up tag can be removed and the message will stay with my Client’s messages.

Choose a time of day to clear your inbox. Depending on the number of messages, this should take an average of about 10 minutes.

This doesn’t mean that you have to address each message and reply. This first step is to simply sift and sort your inbox into categories. In some e-mail systems, moving a message to a folder moves it out of our inbox – great! In Gmail, tagging a message leaves the message in your inbox. You will need to Archive the message to remove it from your inbox, but don’t worry, you’ll find your messages under the tags you selected.

Go through each message and quickly determine it’s proper location. Don’t read each message! Sometimes you can tell where it needs to go based on the subject line or by who sent it.

Prioritize and Determine Action

After your inbox is empty, you can go back to each folder/tag according to priority. By looking at all messages within a topic together, you will be able to determine if you still need that message. Maybe there are duplicates?

I understand holding on to some messages for historical purposes. Maybe you have a message with a recently completed task for a client? You might want to hold on to that one for a while. It’s okay. File it appropriately so if you need it later, you can retrieve it quickly.

If you determine that you don’t really need that message, put it in the trash.

If there are messages that need follow up, make sure you add a follow up tag, or move it to the follow up folder. This will become your to-do list folder.

This step can take more time depending on the volume of messages you need to evaluate. The more often you do this step, the quicker you can finish it. Starting out, I would not spend more than 30 minutes per day, you will just get too overwhelmed.

 Weekly/Monthly Review

After all the sifting and sorting, prioritizing and determining action, you’ll still have messages that you won’t need to keep. It’s like organizing the paper mail that’s delivered to your home or post office box. You’ll see some junk right away, but then there’s always something that you feel you should address later so you hold on to it. It’s time to look at that pile. My guess is that you’re going to find the most items in your folder (or folders) where you store newsletters. Maybe you’re holding on to a newsletter because you didn’t have a chance to read it yet or perhaps it had a juicy nugget of information that you want to keep for reference.

Take a look through each of your folders and give it a serious review. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is this something that is providing me value?
  2. Is this a historical record or important documentation? (receipts, client agreement, etc.)
  3. Is this something that I’m going to have time to read (or read again) in the future?

If you can’t answer yes to at least one of the above questions, consider throwing it in the trash.

This last review step will be time consuming until you get into the habit of regular review. How often you should do this step really depends on the number of messages you receive in your inbox and how well you complete the previous steps. For some, a monthly review will be all that is needed. For others, a weekly review will be required, especially for those just starting to get control over their inbox.

Your clean inbox will help you feel organized and ready to take on new tasks or challenges. Give it a try and see if it helps you.

If you enjoy a clean inbox, please share some of your strategies in the comments below. I’d love to learn more.

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