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Taming Your Inbox at Work

Let me start off by saying that my job (programmer) requires me to use email fairly regularly. It’s how I’m notified of bugs, feature requests, new projects, etc. So I really can’t ignore my email inbox completely, but I certainly do try. Here’s my approach:

First of all, email is asynchronous and, in my opinion, a bad way to communicate with regard to “fires” or other situations that require my immediate attention. If somebody really needs me, they can call my phone (which I typically don’t answer unless I recognize your number and want to speak with you) or they can just waltz their behinds over to my desk. I’ve got other things to worry about than every little hiccup caused by software that I may or may not have written/worked on. My inbox is, on average, 80% fluff (things that I don’t need to take action on or keep for future reference). Somebody in some other department thought maybe I might need to know about whatever it is they’re emailing about. That’s fine, really, I just delete those. Which brings me to my main point:

  • The Delete Key is Your Best Friend : I delete email with a recklessness that rivals that of a drunk driver in a Corvette. If I can’t immediately identify why/how a message might be important to me, it gets round-filed and forgotten immediately. End of story. I seriously can’t stress enough how nice it is to hit (or even forcefully strike) the delete key, especially on a big long list of emails that you know are irrelevant to your existence at work. Try it sometime.

Now, a word on folders and archiving. I currently have two folders: my inbox, a folder called “reference”. That’s all. If an email is relevant to a project I’m working on, it gets printed and put into my physical in-basket for processing. If it might be useful someday, it goes into the reference folder. Otherwise, it’s in the garbage. As Merlin Mann pointed out during an episode of Productive Talk with David Allen, there really is no need for the archaic folder hierarchy so many people maintain with their email. It just causes confusion and turns email into a maintenance nightmare (at least, that’s been my experience). The “as few folders as possible approach” works nicely. And, really, you’d be surprised how few emails fall through the cracks with “delete first, ask questions later”.

Finally, the age-old question: How Often Should I Check My Email? My answer: 3-4 times per day, tops. I never check my email until I’ve been at the office for at least an hour, normally two. I might check it again before/after lunch, and probably once more in the afternoon. That’s really it. The reason is that I’ve got better things to do and email walks a very fine line between “valuable productivity tool” and “complete distraction”. And when I say I only check my email a few times a day, my email client (Outlook, in my case) stays closed/shut down/not running whenever I’m not checking. I don’t get any annoying little alert windows, cute wav files playing or flashing crap in my task bar. If email is my current task, it’s what I need to look at. If not, it stays stowed away like the rest of the things I’m not doing.

My little system has worked out pretty well so far. Obviously it’s not for everybody – if you’re a sales person, you’ll probably want to check your email quite a bit more often than I do. The bottom line is this: check your email as infrequently as you can and delete everything you don’t absolutely need.

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