Is your Inbox a bottomless cavern of read and unread messages spanning your entire tenure at your current job? Does it take you an embarrassingly long time to find a specific email? Gain control of your Inbox (and a small piece of your sanity) and improve your productivity by using these tips to keep the contents of your Inbox at a minimum.
Set Your Inbox Up for Success
By grouping your Inbox by category, you can more easily focus on one task at a time and maintain your train of thought as you review new emails. As I mentioned in Tip #1 – Never Miss An Important Email, automatically assigning categories to incoming emails is a great way to organize your Inbox by client, project, department, etc. Of course, your rules may not catch every email you receive, so I recommend setting up keyboard shortcuts to allow you to easily assign categories to uncategorized emails (which will, conveniently, display at the top of your Inbox if you sort it by Category). From the Home tab, click Categorize and select All Categories to assign a Shortcut Key (CTRL+Function Key) to each category. You can also update category colors and names from this window.
Aligning your Inbox in this manner allows you to tackle new emails with a more focused approach. Resist the urge to continuously check your email (and turn off Desktop Notifications)! Instead, only check emails for each category when you’re working on work related to that category so you can remain focused and more productive.
Keep Up the Pace
Don’t waste your time by forcing yourself to open each email to read them! Instead, display the Preview Pane (details here).
Get the Whole Story
When I am faced with a slew of new emails, I like to sort my Inbox by subject so all related emails are displayed together. All too often, what looks like one solid email chain turns out to actually be a bunch of different branches of the same chain, so I always start with the oldest email in a subject and work my way forward in time, ensuring that I don’t miss anything. How could that impact your productivity? I’ve spent a lot of time catching people up on critical discussions that took place in a branch of an email chain that the other person missed because they only read the most recent email (thereby reducing productivity for both of us!).
Have an Orderly Filing System
Although I don’t recommend auto-filing emails to folders, I strongly recommend utilizing folders. Set them up in whatever manner works best for you: one for each client, one for each project, etc., and store your emails there when you’ve addressed them (see the next topic). Your list of folders could get long, so I recommend a folder called ‘z-Archive’, into which you can drag project folders, for example, once the project has been completed. Outlook automatically alphabetizes Inbox folders, so the ‘z-‘ preference will send the archive folder to the bottom. Similarly, adding a ‘.’ or ‘@’ prefix will send it to the top. Folders will also make your email searches more efficient and effective: if you begin in the Project A folder and search for a key word, you’re guaranteed to get only relevant results to review, rather than results from every undeleted email you’ve ever sent or received.
What to Do With All Those Emails
If you haven’t read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, take a break from reading this blog and go buy it (Amazon). Applying his theories to your Inbox will help improve your productivity immensely! In summary:
Now that we’ve covered your Inbox, let’s start talking about how to better manage your task list, starting with why I have a love/hate relationship with post-it notes…