A lot of email got you feeling down? I know the feeling. After spending a bunch of time playing around analyzing the root causes of why an inbox gets backed up, and using a few different techniques and tools, I've got a pretty rock-solid way to get your inbox to zero fast. It'll absolutely work for you if you do it.
*Comfortable spot without internet access
*Offline email: Mac Mail, Thunderbird, Outlook, the Offline Gmail Chrome Plugin, or something similar
*Scrap paper and a pen
*An elegant note-taking program. I recommend Evernote.
If you're an "online email only" kind of guy or gal, I'd recommend you set up IMAP so you've got all your email on your computer. Empirically speaking, internet access is distracting and leads down rabbit holes. The success rate of successfully clearing out the inbox goes down if you're online, and the time it takes to do so at least doubles. If you're a Gmail user, you're in luck -- Offline Gmail for Chrome is quite robust and you won't need to set anything up. I still like using Outlook or OSX's native Mail App better than Offline Gmail, but it's fast to set up.
Understanding the Email Problem
There's only three kinds of email that gum up an inbox.
1. Voluminous junk with no action required. It's only there because you were lazy about deleting or archiving it as it came in. This can be triaged en masse.
2. Emails are that confusing on what to do with them, so they sit there forever. This is the email that you look at regularly, feel guilty, do nothing about it, and it stays there unsolved. I finally figured out a simple solution on what to do with them.
3. Things that require real-world actions, or time-consuming internet actions. These are dangerous for email-clearing, because the actions you've got to do might number in the "very many hours" range, thus they can gum up your inbox. We've got a solution for these too.
Let's jump right into how to do this.
Voluminous Junk: Triage It Fast
Once you've blocked out some time, downloaded your mail to offline, gotten your materials ready, and gotten off the internet, the first step will be rapidly wiping out volumes of junk.
It's easy to do. You can sort by sender and go through and archive all. For routine notices and newsletters, ditto. Search the sender, select all, archive all.
It makes sense to do a quick fast triage pass or two before you begin clearing the harder stuff. Then, remember to engage in some quick triage as you go. If someone you work with frequently has 30 mails in your inbox, after answering the 2 or 3 most recent, you can usually archive the rest of them (you probably covered it all already).
The biggest barrier to this is psychological: "What if I miss something important?" Well, for anyone you interact with regularly, you're not going to miss anything mission critical. They already told you if it was important.
That said, you almost certainly will miss things of mild importance or interest. But here's where being logical and pragmatic comes in -- you're already missing tons of things of mild importance or interest by having a loaded-up inbox of junk. It's already hurting your life. By making the executive decision to clear it out you'll be much better off.
Triage away. This step is easy.
This part is the killer. In fact, with anything you're procrastinating, it's almost always because you haven't (1) decided what the objective is, or (2) haven't figured out what the next action is.
Here's my method to beating this, heavily inspired by David Allen's Getting Things Done.
Take your scrap paper. Write these three questions on it:
(1) What is this?
(2) What's the desired outcome?
(3) What's the next action?
Then, for every email that you're not sure about, work that out on paper.
This is ridiculously helpful. If you haven't tried it, don't try to imagine what it would be like -- do it! It really, really, really works.
Here's a real-world example. I had an email from Paulo R. Ribiero, an outstanding guy in Brazil. It was confusing to reply to, though, because it covered 3-4 different topics: Paulo had just generously participated in our GiveGetWin fundraiser (go check out GiveGetWin.com if you haven't yet, you can get some amazing benefits for giving a small amount to charity), he and I were having a personal conversation and catching up about our goals after not communicating in a while, he'd offered to potentially get involved in GGW as a volunteer in the future, and also I wanted to remember to stay in touch more with Paulo.
It's exactly the kind of email that could sit in the inbox for a week or two or three, screwing up Paulo's life and my own through inaction.
So here's what I wrote down next to the questions --
(1) Email from Paulo related to personal, GGW
(2) Added to contacts, he's happy, he connects with Stepan and gets good service
(3) Add to contacts; Reply to Paulo; Email to Paulo/Stepan/other buyer
That short action of thinking it through and writing the note on paper was a big guiding compass. It turned out that, to respond to the email, I had to do three things -- first, add Paulo to my database of contacts, second to reply to his email in a personal fashion, and then third to send another email on the charity/organization level.
Disentangling tricky emails into objectives and actions is what'll free your mind up. And I've found paper is immensely more effective for that than the computer.
Clearing Email When Big Time-Consuming Actions Are Attached To Them
This is the trickiest category of all. How often have you started to empty your inbox only to be sent on a wild goose chase through the internet? You start clearing email, get into a decent flow, but then one particular email takes 90 minutes for you to deal with, and you're out of time having only cleared 5 messages out of a big stack?
This is where the note-taking program and calendar come in.
I'm going to assume you're using Evernote. If you're not, you could duplicate this same effect using folders with text files in them, or a Notepad or OneNote file with the right kinds of headings. But for simplicity, I'll assume you're using Evernote.
First, create two different notebooks (folders, categories, whatever if you're using something else). Call one of these "Agendas" and call the other "Action Lists by Context."
Now, the Agendas list is damn near magical. You should have one anyways, all the time, not just for email clearing. What you do is, whenever there's something you need to talk about with someone, you create a note (or file) with their name on it, and write what you want to talk about with them in there.
For instance, I work on charity stuff with Daniel Ternes. I had like a dozen emails that I replied to with, "I'll discuss that with Dan Ternes on our next call, and let you know." I CC'd Dan or forwarded the email to him, added it on our agenda of things to cover, and then that email is cleared!
It's very, very powerful. Seriously, you should have a running Agenda list for everyone you interact with in your life regularly. It speeds things up, frees your mind up, and is just a boon to productivity and calmness overall.
I likewise got a bunch of questions from a friend of mine that is a Nonprofit Director via email. I really didn't want to write answers to all of them, it would have taken a long time. So I put it in an Agenda to speak with him about, and asked when is good to talk. I can cover it all with him on the phone really fast.
"Action Lists by Context" is great too. For instance, my RSS feed on my blog is broken right now, since I configured it wrong after switching from Wordpress to SETT. A number of people told me about that. Now, going and messing with Feedburner and making sure it'll work is at least a 10 minute process, maybe much longer. So instead, I replied to all of them with, "That'll be fixed in the next couple hours, and should be working correctly again in the next day or two."
I then went into my "Action Lists by Context", and put in the "Important" note, "Fix SebastianMarshall.com RSS feed"
How many contexts should you have? Depends on what you do, but not too many. If there's a certain physical location you need to be to do some actions, you should have a context for that. (Home, Office). You probably want one or two for the internet. I have two "online" contexts, one for things that really should get done, and one for stuff that's more optional like reading an article.
I recommend an "Important" context, that you look at rapidly until everything on it is done.
Finally, I'll reply to people and propose a time to talk, and add them to my calendar with "tentative" marked onto the call time. If I need to remember something else from the email, I'll create an Agenda based on it.
Summary of Action Steps
Is that a lot of stuff? No, not really. Here's a checklist for getting setup:
1. Before starting, gather these materials
*Setup an offline mail program
*Download your email
*Get scrap paper and pen
*Get any note-taking program (recommended: Evernote)
*Get any calendar program
2. Go to an offline spot with internet access
3. With voluminous junk, triage your email fast.
*Sort email by sender or search by sender and archive all newsletters and general notices
*For anyone you interact with regularly, reply to their most recent messages and archive the other ones
4. For confusing emails, use the pen and scrap paper
*Write on your scrap paper the following questions:
-- (1) What is this?
-- (2) What's the desired outcome?
-- (3) What's the next action?
*When an email is confusing, just answer those questions in order. You'll untangle the actions, and be able to either do them right away, or add them to an action list for later.
5. For time-consuming email, use Agendas, Action Lists, and a Calendar.
*Create an "Agendas" notebook in Evernote (or folder on your desktop).
--Create an "Agenda" note (or file) for people and fill in actions you want to talk about with thme.
--This unlocks the reply "Let's talk about this next time we talk" to reply to someone.
--This unlocks "I'll discuss this with XYZ-person and get back to you" as a reply to email.
*Create an "Action List by Context" notebook in Evernote (or folder, etc).
--Create contexts where you'd need to do the work.
--Add things to each context that need to be done.
--I'd recommend an "Important" context that you look at regularly until it's 100% clear.
*Propose times to talk to people, and add them tentatively on your calendar.
*You can add dates you promised people that things will get done on your calendar as well.
The final piece of the puzzle is discipline.
You don't have to be perfect; by taking some consistent action you'll make progress. But by far, skipping past the hard stuff is the biggest reason this process could fail you.
If there's an email you really don't want to answer, it's almost certainly because you don't have a firm idea of what your objective is, and/or haven't thought through the next actions.
That's where the paper comes in -- ideally it should be scratch paper, not a pretty or beloved notebook of yours. Just doodle out what you'd like to have happen, and what you need to do to get there.
Some skipping around is fine and natural, but if you're avoiding a particular email, then just doodle on the paper answering the questions about, "What is this? What's the objective? What's the next action?" It's really powerful, so give it a whirl.
And share your own tips in the comments -- happy flash-clearing,