Taking some time away from your many electronic devices can provide a much needed reset. But sometimes coming back can feel even worse than not having that break at all. In particular, I’m talking about your inbox.
Because let’s face it: If you came back to your desk to find a tidy inbox that didn’t induce any level of panic, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You are here because whether you noticed it piling up or not, your inbox now looks like something from a digital version of Hoarders: Buried Alive.
Luckily, there’s a way out of that packed inbox, and you can do it before the end of the day. Jen Dziura shows the path to email enlightenment at GetBullish.com, where the first step is to… well, cheat.
The first step to getting to inbox zero, she writes, is to put all your old, unread emails in a folder called “To Be Processed.” Then you ignore them. What’s past is past, and anyone who wants anything from you will follow-up as needed. If you already feel guilty, stop that. This is a temporary white flag. You will do better next time.
Once you’ve got your inbox down to a reasonable few weeks (or fewer, if you’re feeling brave) of unread messages, delete spam, unsubscribe from promotional email lists, and archive lingering messages from friends. Got a bunch of messages from a boss or colleague? Dziura says to make some notes about the key themes, then ask for a meeting to catch up with that person. Take notes. “Then archive their emails, and do the stuff on the notepad,” she writes.
Here’s the most important part: It’s time to do all the leftover tasks your remaining inbox queries require. “For most people, a full inbox is a very, very poorly organised to-do list full of bad feelings,” she points out. So you have to take your pared-down inbox and make an actual to-do list.
Using an online document or spreadsheet, Dziura says to make a list of each email you need to respond to or act upon, beginning each one with a verb:
“Mark Smedkoff” is not a task. “Reply to Mark Smedkoff” begins with a verb, which is better, but not very specific. What do you need to do in order to reply? We’re looking for something like, “Tell Mark Smedkoff no to his project” or “Email Mark Smedkoff old 2016 taxes,” in which case you will probably need to add another to-do: “Find old 2016 taxes.”
Transfer any information you need to complete the task into your spreadsheet or document, include a link to the specific email if you’re in Gmail or another web-based inbox, and then archive each and every email.
If you’re tempted to just do the tasks then and there, adhering to the “touch everything once” philosophy, stop yourself from diving in. “It’s totally ok to make a to-do even though it might take longer than to just reply, because you’re emotionally exhausted,” she writes. If it has taken you this long to answer your emails, what’s one more day?
Forcing yourself to make the to-do list reminds you that your inbox is not an actual to-do list. It is where other people’s to-dos get shoved into your personal messaging space. By making a real to-do list, you take back control of that space and give yourself the freedom to hit “delete” (or “archive” or “spam” or whatever) on everything else.