Inbox Zero #1: Defining the Problem

The most common kind of digital clutter I help people with is email inbox management. Most people don’t even realize that this is an area where change is possible. They assume that email just is what it is and will always be a source of worry and stress. But it doesn’t have to be. You can take proactive steps to improve your email inbox just like you can improve a physical space in your home. And you’re likely to find that with a clean, clear inbox comes a feeling of freedom and clarity.

A Mailbox, Not a File Cabinet

The first step is to define the problem, which means defining your email. Have you ever stopped to think about what email actually is? It’s a way for the outside world to get to you. In the same way a physical mailbox is a way for the postal service to deliver your mail without having to step into your home, the email inbox is just a place for email to arrive. Nothing actually belongs in the inbox, just like nothing belongs in your physical mailbox.

At its core, email is someone else’s demand of your time. It is someone in the outside world asking you to put your time and energy into their interests, problems, and concerns. This is true whether it’s a company wanting you to read about their latest products, or a customer hoping to buy something from you. Every time you open your inbox, you are asking the rest of the world how it would like you to spend your day.

The Psychology of a Messy Inbox

The management of any space ultimately comes down to the habits you have in that space. Here are some common habits that tend to generate negative inbox relationships, and what might be reinforcing them.

1. Checking your inbox dozens/hundreds of times per day

The human brain is primed to respond to novelty. The experiences you get from novelty don’t have to be universally good, so long as they sometimes are and you don’t know when to expect them. Many modern systems feed on this idea, including all social media (this is why I recommend people turn off as many notifications as possible across all devices). When you go to your inbox there is often something new. Sometimes that new thing is a good or fun or interesting thing. Sometimes it’s not. But you’ll come back, over and over again throughout the day, hoping to get that good thing again. In this way your email inbox is no different than a slot machine. The risk you take in letting this slot machine control your life is exactly that – it controls your life. Not you.

2. Never deleting anything

Many people hesitate before deleting an email because they are worried they might need it later. This stems from the same compulsion to keep possessions long after they’ve outlived their usefulness. You imagine a future “someday” in which an item might come in handy, so you feel like you need to keep it just in case. You don’t have clear parameters for what useful emails look like, so you keep everything. The risk you take is allowing your inbox to fill up with junk, getting in the way and distracting you from what actually matters.

3. Never filing anything

Theoretically once an email has been dealt with you should be able to get it out of the inbox, but that often won’t happen because you don’t know where to put it. You have folders for each organization you belong to, for certain individuals or projects, for stuff you want to reference later. But the lines between these folders are blurry. You don’t know where to put something that fits in multiple places or doesn’t belong in any. So you make more and more folders with increasing levels of specialization, until there are so many it’s too much work to find the right one. And the email stays in the inbox instead. The risk you take is not only allowing completed tasks to clutter your inbox, but in wasted time and effort trying to find all those poorly sorted emails later when you actually need them.

4. Leaving items in the inbox

Even when something isn’t trash and isn’t looking for a place to be filed, you may still end up leaving it in the inbox. You may even open it, read it, then mark it as unread to help you “remember” to deal with it later. This is often because you are subconsciously deferring a decision. You don’t know how you want to handle this particular email or aren’t sure how to proceed, so you don’t do anything. It’s as though you opened a letter, read it, put it back in the envelope, and stuffed it back in the mailbox for you to find again tomorrow. It’s not doing you much good, but it frees you from the immediate pain of having to consciously deal with the situation at hand. The risk you run is that there’s no set moment when you will switch from deferring the decision to acting on it, meaning things can get forgotten or dropped. Even if they don’t, you’re letting them sit in your inbox the whole time, nagging at you and stressing you out.

Question Your Incoming Emails

In the coming months I’ll cover different tactics and strategies to deal with all of these negative habits. But for now, you need to start questioning what you have. Rather than looking at each email individually for what it’s asking of you, start looking for patterns and categories. Generally, your email will fall into one of these five groups:

1. Tasks (including reminders for tasks)

2. Pertinent Info (no action is required but you need to know it right away)

3. Low-Priority Info (good info that isn’t time-sensitive, such as newsletters)

4. Reference (information you’ll need in the future)

5. Things you shouldn’t be getting (junk mail, as well as items that should have been sent to someone else or shouldn’t have come via email)

Thinking about your emails in terms of the categories they fall into helps to break the negative habit cycles you have, and forces you to take action more often. If you find a reference email but have no where to put it, perhaps you need a better system for keeping reference info. If you get a task but don’t do it right away or put it on your to-do list, perhaps some part of you is questioning whether or not this task should be done at all. If you find some junk mail, perhaps you’ll stop to unsubscribe and prevent more of the same emails in the future.

Your Mission

Open your email inbox, but don’t check your email. Instead, start at the top of the list and try to put each email into a category (it might help to get out a piece of paper to keep track). Ask yourself what you felt compelled to do with the email, and then consider if that’s the best option for the category the email is in. Here are a few suggested actions to consider:

Tasks > do it if it will take less than 2 minutes, otherwise add it to your task list

Pertinent Info > Read, then archive the email

Low-Priority Info > Read if it will take less than 2 minutes, otherwise add it to your task list or a “To Read/Review” folder

Reference > Confirm that it has the right keywords you’ll need to search for it later, then archive

Things you shouldn’t be getting > unsubscribe and delete junk, delegate things that aren’t your job, clarify with sender if you wished it wasn’t an email (maybe by setting up a call or meeting instead)

Set a timer for 10 minutes to do this activity. You don’t need to make it through your whole inbox, just enough to find emails from multiple categories. Good luck!