Declutter your digital world: Your inbox

May 17, 2017

Feeling virtuous following my smartphone overhaul, this week I decided to turn my attention to my personal clutter Everest - my inbox.

I like a meme as much as the next person, but this one’s given me some trouble. I understand the premise - that you’re either the sort of person who takes pleasure in maintaining a scrupulously tidy inbox, or you’re altogether more breezy and don’t pay it a second’s thought - but neither describes my email psyche.

I seem to exist in a perpetual state of unread - 45, 79, 121… - and rather than an adorable side effect of how carefree and uninterested in society’s binds I am, it’s a constant source of anxiety. I find myself checking frequently, opening everything, deleting nothing, and, overwhelmed, switching everything back to ‘unread’.

Attacking the inbox

Following last week’s success, I tried to apply Marie Kondo’s principles - that the items you surround yourself with should spark joy or be discarded - to my inbox. I’d enjoyed this type of decision-making, having developed a ruthless eye for apps and files that take up space and don’t make my life happier or easier.

I attacked my unread emails with the same approach, and at first it seemed to work; the emails from loved ones, the flight confirmations and the event invites from book groups were easy to identify and file away. Similarly, spotting what I really didn’t need was straightforward - I used to unsubscribe from a staggering 960 marketing newsletters.

Then I came across a stumbling block. It’s easy to skim off what you really love and want to keep, and equally, it’s satisfying and takes little effort to identify what you definitely don’t need in your inbox. However, for me that represented two very small tips of an enormous, looming iceberg. What I didn’t know how to handle was the digital rusty tin opener - emails that bring no pleasure, but that I need. And in most instances, need to do something about.

Inbox ZERO

Just as my ancestors before me, I turned to the internet for solutions and quickly found the Kondo of digital lifehacking, Merlin Mann, a productivity evangelist and founder of Inbox Zero. I’d heard of Inbox Zero, but I’d misunderstood it to be a rule to live by rather than a solution - to my mind, it was a badge of honour firmly in the domain of those who effortlessly keep their emails categorised and filed.

I watched Mann’s hour-long Google Tech presentation on his approach to handling email, where he suggests that ‘there is probably no better way to have your time burgled than having an unhealthy relationship with your inbox, and not having a sense of where stuff belongs.’

He explains that the issue data-hoarders like me have is that we’ve forgotten that email is just a medium - a way to pass information from one place to another. What our focus ought to be is extracting the information we need, and processing it - Mann’s recommendation is that we process each email as we open it, and give ourselves a limited number of options to make this quick and instinctive: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do. His theory is that ‘you will never have an overstuffed inbox if you get into the habit of processing everything each time you check’.

Act immediately. You won't regret it.

Like Kondo, this approach felt simple and easy to implement: this week, each time I checked my emails I’d delete, forward, or action, and instead of marking unread the ones I didn't feel able to respond to immediately, I’d drag them into a folder: ‘Requires a response’. At 15:00 each day, I’d set out to clear this folder, leaving only those which I didn’t have the full information to deal with at the time.

And how did it feel? Invigorating. Clearing my inbox down to zero each time I checked it made me feel like a merciless email-processing android from the future. I found myself reading things more carefully the first time, no longer skimming for landmines and ignoring the detail or actions required. I made more calls - many of my 15:00 responses were quicker and simpler over the telephone - and I no longer used the ding of my email server as a distraction from the work I was doing. I felt like a superhero.

With 960 fewer marketing emails to deal with, and a trigger finger trained to shift emails out of my inbox as soon as I’ve read them, I feel like a new woman.

If you need help with managing your inbox, get in touch with the consultants and expert coaches at Integrated Resources today.

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