When you think about the clutter in your home office, do you picture documents, file folders, receipts, and business cards strewn about your desk, stacked on shelves, and shoved in drawers? If you’ve been following me for any length of time you know how those piles can impede your focus and productivity and make finding what you need when you need it more time consuming than necessary. But what about electronic clutter? Have you ever considered a way to “Tame Your Email Clutter”? It’s so easy to ignore it. You don’t have to pay attention to the bits and bytes being consumed by electronic excess, until you look at your email inbox.
A client of mine recently reached that point when she lamented that every time she opened her email inbox, it made her head spin. Staring her in the face were the thousands of messages she hadn’t dealt with (or had she, she was not sure), the people she had neglected (by not responding promptly, if at all), and the information relevant to her work and life that she found interesting, but never seemed to have the time to read. It was depressing, as well as paralyzing. I assured her just like the real world, digital clutter results from delayed decisions and won’t go away unless you make a conscious decision to deal with it.
When you read an email message you basically have 3 choices of how to deal with it, File, Act, or Toss. When you apply the FAT methodology to your inbox, you’ll see the digital clutter decline in no time.
File, Act, or Toss
If you need to keep a message for reference purposes only or as a CYA (For those of you who don’t know this acronym, first of all you’re very lucky. Secondly it stands for “cover your _ _ _”.) , then file it in a folder and get it out of your inbox. Only take the time to file things you’ll need for reference or legal/tax/industry retention. If you’re not sure you need to keep a message, please see the Art of Wastebasketry™ questions below. Always keep in mind that 80% of what you file away is never looked at again, so don’t spend agonizing minutes trying to decide whether to keep a message and scrolling through a long list of folders to decide where to store it.
Do NOT use your email inbox as a task list. Once you have more than a screens worth of emails those messages become long forgotten and will not spur you to action. As a general rule if you can reply or perform the action requested by the sender in 2 minutes or less, do it now. Otherwise it will take you longer to track the action and complete it later. Get it done and move on. For messages that require a little more time and attention, convert the message to a task on your task list or calendar and make a plan as to when you’re going to complete it. Then file or delete the message. If a message requires you to do something TODAY, meaning you cannot leave the office or finish your workday until this is done, leave it in your inbox and flag it in some way within your email management system. Before you finish your day you need to complete the task or respond to the message and get it out of your inbox. I personally use Evernote as my task management system, and through the clipper function can easily convert any email message to a task with a simple click of my mouse. Find your preferred method of email to task conversion and stick with it. Your less cluttered inbox will thank you and your ability to get more done will improve.
It seems like such a simple thing, “Hit the delete button”, yet most people don’t. Your indecision is not uncommon and the only way to resolve it is to be more clear about what you need to keep and what you can get rid of. Below are the Art of Wastebasketry™ questions as they apply to the digital world:
- Does it require action? – Just because you receive information, does not mean you need to keep it or do something with it. In the age of “reply all” overuse, you can often delete unnecessary messages.
- Is it recent enough to be useful? – If a message has been lingering in your inbox for over a few weeks or an industry newsletter is older than a couple of months you’re probably better off deleting it rather than thinking you’ll actually get to it.
- Is it difficult to get again? – Subscription based information that you receive via email can often be found through a simple internet search. Read the information in a timely manner or delete it. You can always find it again when you need it.
- Are there tax or legal implications? – In this instance, knowing what you need to keep is very dependent on your own personal situation or industry. Check with your CPA, attorney, or tax professional on what records you need to keep. If you’re in a company environment, have a well defined retention policy. Know your potential tax and legal situation so that you can plan what to keep, rather than keeping everything, “just in case”.
- Is there a specific use for it? – If you’re thinking about taking the time to file a message, know why you’re keeping it. If you’re unsure about your future need for the information, it’s unlikely that you’ll remember you have it or be able to find it when you do need it.
- What’s the worst thing that could happen if I delete it? – If you can live with the consequences, then send the message to your trash and don’t look back.
Using the Art of Wastebasketry™ questions and the FAT system will quickly propel your inbox from a cluttered mess to a system that allows you to find the information you need when you need it.
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