11 simple habits towards an empty inbox

The inbox GRRR! I used to hate my inbox. For me, it was the culmination of not being in control of my work. I had read and unread messages, marked and unmarked, high priority and higher priority, direct, cc’s and bcc’s and usually several scrollpages full of them! The harder I tried to manage the messages in my inbox, the worse it got. In the end, my inbox was running me, instead of serving me. I needed a breakthrough! GTD brought me the paradigm shift: Inboxes are supposed to be empty! And if not, they’re supposed to hold nothing but (truly) unread messages.

Getting there required me to adopt several new habits:

1. Check your e-mail once, twice or thrice a day
Go to the options section in your e-mail client and set the polling interval to 240 minutes. While you’re there, disable all notifications of new mail (audible, visible, systray and so on). Now schedule how often you want to empty your inbox, I use 3 times a day, early in the morning, after lunch, at the end of the day. When working through the inbox, open the mail, define what folder it belongs to, move the e-mail and move on to the next.

2. Set-up a folder structure and work from there
E-mail can either be archived, deleted or responded to. The response can be either a simple response, or it may require you to take an actual action. For this I suggest the following folder structure:mailfolders

  • Action; for all e-mail requiring action
  • Archive; for your reference e-mails
  • Respond; for all e-mail requiring straightforward responses
  • Hold (optional); for e-mail you need soon (passwords, tracking numbers etc)
  • Purgatory (optional); for e-mail you haven’t decided upon yet

Now work from these folders. Start with the responses (they require the least time, see habit 5), then take up the actions.

3. Start sending e-mails the way you would like to receive them
I like my e-mails like this:

  • On topic subject
  • One topic per e-mail
  • Max one scroll page of text
  • Specific formulation of the expected reaction in the first paragraph (preferable the first sentence)
  • One person in the To: line

So I do my best to send them that way.

4. Empower the subject line (and edit it in replies if necessary)
Make the subject line very to the point. If possible, put the characteristic of the message in the subject:

  • request for:
  • information on:
  • action needed on:

And use [eom] as a suffix, if the body of the message is empty. Eom = end of message. When replying to a message, edit the subject line if necessary! Add: (was Re: <original subject>) as a suffix.

5. Empower the recipient
Merlin Mann had a very good tip for empowering the recipient of a message. Add a header to your message with the following:

This email is: [ ] actionable [x] fyi [ ] social
Response needed: [ ] yes [x] up to you [ ] no
Time-sensitive: [ ] immediate [ ] soon [x] none

And like he says: Sure, it’s geeky. But it ought to work… to be honest though, I haven’t used this a lot yet.

6. Work in a SPT-order
SPT is an acronym for Shortest Processing Time (first). This is a concept used in operations management to decide what job to take up next. Using this algorithm results in the highest number of jobs processed on time. If every job is a different customer, this also achieves the highest level of customer satisfaction (providing you do the job well).The big disadvantage is that some big jobs keep getting pushed back to the end of the line. But then again, these are most likely projects (in GTD terminology) anyway. Reply to the sender that you have to plan and organize before you’re able to take the first action (which makes the job-time considerable less, and moves the e-mail to the front of the line). Don’t forget to put the project in your project list though!

7. Use the Eisenhower (or Covey) matrix
The Eisenhower matrix (used by Stephen Covey in his books) has two axis, importance and urgency. The four quadrants are:

1. Important and urgent
2. Important but not urgent
3. Not important, yet urgent
4. Neither important or urgent

Unsubscribe from everything in quadrant 4 (yes, there are most of the newsletters). Handle quadrant 3 in such a way, that new e-mails with actions don’t come your way. Take an active approach there, you’re doing someone else’s work! Quadrant 1 and 2 are OK. The better you are at GTD (and e-mail management), the fewer quadrant 1 actions will appear.

8. Use the signature to outline your e-mail policy
Signatures are powerful tools. Provide your contact information in them, provide a disclaimer in there if you want, but also include your e-mail policy. I just came up with this one, so I have no experience with it, but I’m going to use something like this:

Lodewijk’s e-mail policy:
I check my e-mail at most 3 times a day, at 9am, 1pm and 5pm CET. If your e-mail needs attention on a shorter notice, please pick up a phone and call me, that was the best way to handle it anyway. When I process my inbox at those times I decide what action is required from me, and I will act accordingly. First I archive or delete all messages that are FYI (if my name is in the cc: or bcc: list, this will always apply), then simple responses are handled, and lastly any e-mail requiring action other than simply responding are handled. You can help me help you better if your e-mails have good subject lines, handle one topic only, and state what your expectation is in the first line of the e-mail. I expect you to empower me in dealing with the vast amount of e-mail we generate, and you can expect the same from me.

9. Reply to e-mails to the point
Keep your e-mail to the point. Don’t mix socializing and answering the topic at hand in one mail. Don’t mix several topics in one mail. If your response triggered a new thought or question related, but off-topic, keep the thought and start a new e-mail.

10. Reply on a topic to topic basis
If you receive a multi-topic e-mail, reply on a topic per topic basis. So if you get one e-mail asking you three things, respond using three e-mails and edit the subject line accordingly. This may seem contra-productive, but if the recipient starts a discussion on one or several of your responses, you’ll be glad you did!

11. Use cc: and bcc: as FYI only
Only the To: line is for requesting a response or an action. Cc: and bcc: are for information purposes only!
Most of these habits I have adopted already. Some of them are works in progress. And I’m proud that my inbox has remained empty for over three months now, and I enjoy the benefits of faster and more accurate responses. I’m back in control! YEAH!

More resources on dealing with e-mail:

Posted in spilling beans on Sun 2007.05.13


David Hollingworth May 13, 2007 at 21:39

To this list I would add:

Don’t use email as a conversation tool. It’s tempting to bat a conversation back and forth using email; but it takes something like five times as long to type a sentence than to say it.

So if you want a conversation then use the phone and same your time.

Lodewijk van den Broek May 15, 2007 at 01:42

David, that’s a nice addition. It’s amazing how some e-mails grow into a group discussion! Phones or meetings or so much better at times.

John Willerton August 3, 2007 at 22:58

Pleased I found this site. I’m new to GTD. I’ve started using your system, but find I don’t I use anything but the action and archive folders. I followed some links and the following tips appealed:

Automatically filter anything you are cc’d on – I spend a lot of time keeping myself informed of other peoples issues – not sure this is efficient.
You only need 1 folder – archive. Immediately transfer things that need action to your to do list.

Lodewijkvdb August 4, 2007 at 07:38

Hi John,

I have to admit that those are the two I use the most as well. The “Respond” folder is a third, but usually I respond immediately if all I need to do is respond. I use my Action folder as my to do list, as far as email related to do’s are concerned. I have a separate to do list for the rest (I’m currently using Tudumo).

CC is really a productivity killer. I discourage people from putting me there, if they feel I need to know something, really let me know (and preferably tell me why they feel I need to know).

It sounds like you’re making progress on getting the grip on the email monster. I’ve found that to be one the most gratifying so far. My inbox is almost always empty, and the lessons I learn from managing my electronic inbox are also helping me to manage my other inboxes.

Michael@ Awareness * Connection August 23, 2008 at 04:36

I love the idea of naming a mailbox purgatory.

Nice email structure. I just implemented a similar one. I may have to give yours a go after a bit though.

Michael@ Awareness * Connection’s last blog post..What Web 2.0 Says About Human Beings

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