Managing Your Email: Is an Empty Inbox Even Possible?

Managing Your Email: Is an Empty Inbox Even Possible?

Tyler L McClain

Assistant Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

A topic that I often discuss with new or seasoned professionals is the challenge of managing your inbox. I am always seeking new ways to increase my effectiveness with this never-ending task. I have struggled for years trying to find the most effective way to manage my inbox and the following serves as a reflection of my experiences and will hopefully provide helpful insight for the continuous challenge of managing your inbox. I would also like to preface the following statements by saying that we each create our own understanding of what a managed inbox looks like, thus I hope that my reflection will add to yours.

Inbox Zero. I have tried and tried to achieve this goal but I have come to the realization that I needed to determine my own inbox zero, is it 5, 10, 15, or even 20 emails. My current goal has been 10 or fewer emails that require a response. Achieving and maintaining this goal has been possible through various inbox management techniques that I share below.

Auto File. This management technique allows for you to set up rules that auto file emails based on sender email, individuals cc’d on an email, or even words contained in the subject line. Each time I have attempted this technique to help manage my inbox I have inadvertently created another inbox to go through when I find the time. The reality is that the auto file ends up creating a black hole where emails go to never be read. As an individual who likes to review all emails, I have found this to be an ineffective technique for my approach.

Folders. This is the most utilized form of organizing email. For the email savers out there, we all know who we are; this is our favorite management technique to use. It allows us to keep all of our emails forever, organized by a topic of our choice. We create folders, within folders, within folders to help us reduce the clutter in our inbox and file away all of the “important” emails for a rainy day, because we might just need them at some point in the future. I find this to be one of the most effective management techniques to help me continually meet my inbox zero goal.

File-upon-arrival. In my work I have found this technique to be very helpful, I pause and review emails as they arrive in my inbox. While I know that this is not always possible, if it can be immediately filed, responded to, or deleted I do so and then shift back to the task at hand. If I have been in meetings and have been away from my email for a few hours, once I return to my desk, I pause do a quick review of everything that has arrived and follow my file-upon-arrival steps.

Mark it as Unread. This technique utilizes the unread feature of email to categorize things that you still need to respond too by marking them as unread. While it seems to work in the beginning, as the never ending flow of email builds, you begin to loose track of which emails you have opened and marked as unread and the ones you haven’t even opened yet. Thus I haven’t found this to be the most effective technique and I use the unread feature as it was intended.

In the end, I think, as with most things in life, routine is key. It is important to set-aside time to read and respond, file, and delete. Everyone is always busy but you have to make an active choice to set aside time needed to help you stay sane and manage the never-ending flow of email in and out of your inbox. If necessary, close your door, put headphones in, put your cell phone face down or even schedule a consistent meeting on your calendar.

What other inbox management strategies have you tried? Share your experience with us @LearnForwardHE.

Tyler L McClain

Assistant Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX