I have some friends and coworkers who have e-mail inboxes out of control. Some have hundreds, or even thousands, of messages waiting for them to deal with. To me, that is information overload. People are amazed when I tell them about my 'inbox zero' initative and that most of the time, my four primary e-mail inboxes, usually have less than 20 messages total. Sometimes, the boxes are even empty!
What works for me is a system of dealing with and managing my e-mails systematically as not to get overwhelmed by them. I don't remember where I first read about the concept of 'inbox zero' (I looked for it to reference directly in this post but couldn't find it), but I've used it for years and it's really helped me. I wanted to share my experience to hopefully help others.
It's not magic, or a fancy trick, or creating filters to move mail automatically (although I do some of that as well for some newsletters and bank e-mails), but rather a discipline. When an e-mail comes into my inbox, I know I have four things I can do with it: Answer it, tag it to deal with it later, delegate it to someone else or just delete it.
Let me walk through these one at a time...
If the e-mail is something I can deal with right then, I do. If it's something that doesn't require research or I know the answer to, by responding I get it off my plate and back to the person who sent it to me.
Tag it to deal with it later
Sometimes I don't know the answer right then or I don't have all the information I need to get back to the person e-mailing. The best thing I find in this case is to tag it for answering later. This doesn't mean I let it sit for days upon end, but rather I give myself a timeframe to deal with it. May be in the next 10 minutes or in a few days, but regardless, I make sure I deal with it and don't just let it sit there. I use the "flag" ability in my e-mail client to identify these e-mails, but do keep them in my inbox so they continue to be top of mind.
Delegate it to someone else
This is used more with my coprorate e-mails than with personal ones, but it's a good one... if I don't know the answer or I know there is someone else who may know it better than me, I'll pass it along to that person for answering. It only takes a minute to decide if I am the best person to answer the message or not. Maybe the person sending it to me thought I might have the answer, but the bottom line is, if the answer is available elsewhere, why not get it from the better source.
This is by far my favorite. If it's an e-mail I know I'm never going to need again or it's just information, why keep it? Just delete it! I know a lot of people who say "yea, but I may need that e-mail some day". Well, ok, then don't delete it, but archive it. In my business e-mail account, I have folders for each of my clients. This allows me to keep things I may need later (artwork for an upcoming job, user information for their site, proposals and invoices, etc.). I make sure I delete anything I don't need once a project is done.
So, there you go. "My" four easy steps to keeping my e-mail box pretty empty. It works for me... will it work for you?