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E-mail fu

When email piles up in my inbox, it is usually because I am avoiding taking action. A message with an old timestamp is usually related to a task I don’t want to do or to a question I’m not sure how to answer. For me, a messy inbox signals procrastination, and the more I avoid email the more it piles up.

Lately, I have been working to clear my inbox every night. This doesn’t mean I’ve necessarily answered every message, but I have at least archived or sorted what has been sent to me. I have folders labeled “To do” and “Respond to.” This saves me time because I am no longer reading and re-reading and reading again the messages in my inbox and telling myself “I need to reply to that” and “Still haven’t replied to that” and “I really need to do that thing that person is asking about.” It’s less repetitive. My mind gets out of a recursive loop.

Clearing my inbox also makes me act on messages I’m avoiding, so I get more done. I’ve also started replying to some messages right away, even if that’s only a minute or two after the sender sent them. I used to hate doing that since I thought it was freaky to appear glued to your email, but now that everyone has a Blackberry or iPhone, it seems more normal to always be cuddled up to your inbox. It also helps clear mental space because an email is taken care of right away instead of taking up room in my inbox and my mind.

Merlin Mann wrote some articles about the concept of Inbox Zero, and after I read them recently I was happy to realize I was already doing most of what he recommends. I am fortunate that I’m not getting hundreds of emails a day, but I do get a significant amount. The only tip by Mann that I’m loathe to adopt is the habit of only checking email a few times a day. This is supposed to make you more efficient because you are not constantly distracted by pings of messages arriving one by one. However, I sort of like being distracted from my day job by little messages every hour. Also, being a web designer, sometimes emergencies do arise with servers or blogs which I need to be able to attend to right away. If I only checked my email occasionally I might miss something important. That said, I was perfectly ok with checking email only once a day when I was on vacation.

What does your inbox look like? Anyone else ever feel overwhelmed by the glut of messages?

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23 Comments

debby • July 6, 2009 at 10:20 am

I don’t think I get as many emails as some people. I have never tried putting emails in folders, but I like your idea. I also can’t help myself. I check my email MANY times during the day. Its just fun!

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Karen • July 6, 2009 at 11:59 am

My inbox reflects the state of my life in much the same way the cleanliness of my home does. When the inbox/my apartment are a mess, it means that I am in a scattered state of mind and mired in procrastination. I’m planning to go to Europe at the end of July and I will be gone for a month (S.E. Europe — Turkey + The Balkans) and it is VERY important for me to get my quotidian life under control before I set out on my journey and leave said life for a whole month. So, I went into my gmail and invented a massive amount of labels and e-mail filters to sort and categorize everything and now my inbox is… lovely and taken care of and I feel like I have my act together when I open my personal e-mail. I also finally set up multiple accounts in my gmail so that my university e-mail can send/receive from the gmail inbox, etc. I feel like I’ve got it together, finally. I’ve also been replying to e-mails the moment after they come in (if I can) because I just don’t want to have a lot of stuff pending if I can help it.

During the work week, I have my personal and work e-mails open throughout the day and check them as needed/when I’m bored with work. But after I leave work I don’t open my e-mail until the next morning. And on the weekends, I basically check my e-mail only once a day. I definitely think that when you’re on your own time and out and about and spending time with family and friends, you should try to loosen the tether of technology and escape the e-mail blitz. For this reason, I refuse to get a blackberry or iphone (that, and I can’t afford it — but it sounds much cooler to insist I don’t have e-mail in my phone because I simply don’t need it ;-)

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Dawn • July 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm

It use to be that my work email inbox was a mess of msgs some going all the way back 2 yrs lol. Then we got sold and got put on a new email system and magically I didn’t have to think about it anymore since everything went to the archives. So now I try to sort immediately and I’m hoping I’ll never go back to the mess I use to have. As for my personal inbox well I do try hard to deal with that regularly but it’s still a bit of a mess. So all that said, you’re definitely not alone.

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boots • July 6, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Ooh, I’m psyched you brought up Merlin Mann! I keep reading/hearing great stuff by him lately (he did this really motivating speech on doing creative work), and the Inbox Zero stuff is no exception.

The “check your email only a few times a day” thing irritates me, because I feel like it’s always written by people high enough on the totem pole that they actually CAN let their email go that long. My manager is forever sending stuff and then walking over to say, “Didja get that email I sent you?”

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Diane • July 6, 2009 at 1:27 pm

I love getting email, probably because I’m not innundated with it like some people. I do check it frequently, and try to just go ahead and respond right away and clear it off.

I’m like that with my house too – just touch things once, rather than moving them around from place to place. Maybe I have to be like that since I have seven kids!

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MissM • July 6, 2009 at 1:52 pm

I love email. LOVE IT. I read it as soon as it comes in and answer as soon as I can. I don’t get as much email as most people though. And I wish I got more, especially funny ones from friends (not forwards, just ‘thinking of you’).

I’m pretty bad w/googlemail though. When I am tired of seeing something, that on a rare occasion I don’t want to deal with, I just archive everything and *viola* clean!

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Meg • July 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm

My inbox is a mess. Mostly because I am loathe to ever delete things. Oh, everything is read and responded to (most of the time), but i feel this need to hang on to every digital missive like it’s some treasured family heirloom. I mean, you never know when you’ll need that archive of emails for something! Right?

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Lisa • July 6, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Ok – So I am addicted to e-mail and check it constantly. It might have something to do with being a freelancer and having lots of e-mail contacts with publishers.

As a joke I checked my e-mail while reading this post and found out I sold a story! Yea for e-mail!

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Lisa • July 6, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I have OCD about my inbox. I have to clean it out every day several times a day. :)

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Shauna • July 6, 2009 at 5:34 pm

I like your approach PQ! I try to deal with simple emails right away now – friends, family, work stuff. but still struggling with blog emails. I neatly label them ReplyTo right away but there’s no way I can answer them all yet I keep them there in case I get a spare half hour and I can get a good run at a few! But them there’s the whole dilemma of who to answer first, what to do with the 147 old ones, when has the moment passed, do I have the guts to hit Archive… etc etc etc

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Robby Slaughter • July 6, 2009 at 10:24 pm

My inboxes (I have a personal and professional mailbox) circle back to zero about once week. Actually, email productivity is a big area of for my consulting business.

The best part about your post is that you have such a positive attitude about getting ahead of email. This is one of the greatest challenges—so many people feel trapped by their inbox and are constantly “at battle” with email.

One thing you might consider is to write emails and leave them in your drafts folder, and then once a day go through and hit the “send” button. This allows you to review what you wrote, but also moves away from responding instantly to email. Sometimes, it’s useful to help others recognize that email is for asynchronous communication by making sure they do not get an instant response. If they do really need you, they can always pick up the phone.

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Julie • July 6, 2009 at 10:55 pm

My email is like a ghost town inhabited only by spam and the few friends that aren’t on Facebook because all of my friends and most of my family are on it and nobody is emailing anymore LOL. So I’ve gotten to where I check it once or twice a day for the few legit messages and to clear out the spam that makes it past the filter.

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Jenna • July 7, 2009 at 12:56 am

My email is a mess, so much I have yet to go through, and seems when I do it piles up agian. You think my inbox is bad, you should see my room! I guess Im just not one of those orginized people.

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Kyle • July 7, 2009 at 1:25 am

Dude, I tried that whole putting my emails in a “respond to” and a “respond to URGENTLY” folder.

I ended up just deleting both entire folders because I never responded to either of them. Oops. Hope there was nothing truly URGENT in there :)

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tina • July 7, 2009 at 6:43 am

My inbox is my dirty little secret. Everything in my house is in tip top order. My e-mail, however, resembles a 600 square foot apartment housing a hoarder. I have a dozen or so folders in my e-mail to sort and archive, but my account is 82% full and has 130 “unread” e-mails that I’ve flagged for later use or response. I’ll bet that 90% of those e-mails are past their expiration date.

I’ve vowed to clean it out before the school year starts back up again, but I said that during Winter Break too.

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Deb • July 7, 2009 at 8:40 am

I started doing the folder thing too, since I get zillions of email a day. Now I have two dozen folders in my inbox!!! ACK. I have to have the work email up constantly during the day because we have a policy here that we have to respond to our volunteers within a certain time frame or they get a $10 off coupon to the company store, and I get my ass chewed. So I spend a lot of my day responding to idiots who tell me things aren’t working on the website that are, or helping them find something that was right on the home page.

I’m trying to make a point of clearing stuff out or filing it by the end of the day so I don’t get any more nastygrams from the email server police.

I’m also a Blackberry nerd–all 4 of my email addresses get forwarded to it.

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Panda Q • July 7, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Ha ha. I thought this was going to be NSFW, like email, f- you. LOL.

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Denise • July 7, 2009 at 12:52 pm

My personal email generally stays under 20 messages in the Inbox while I shoot for 40 or less in my work Inbox (via the liberal use of archives) – I just feel too out of control when there’s anything more than that hanging out there. However, if one or the other has to suffer from lack of care, the personal Inbox is the first to go when I’m either stressed out or busy.

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Nicky • July 7, 2009 at 3:16 pm

I used to rely on my work inbox as a reminder to get things done, but since I usually receive at least 100 emails a day, it becomes a bit overwhelming. INow I immediately send most emails to an “archive” folder (both sent and received) so I can refer back to them for CYA situations. At home, I do a lot of deleting but I mostly answer immediately. I don’t have any issue with responding to an email right away, since I like people to get back to me tout suite! There’s no stigma against email cuddlers in my world.

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KateG • July 7, 2009 at 7:13 pm

For the first time in about 10 years I have a job where you can’t check your personal email on the work computers. This has been kind of annoying, but ultimately probably will be liberating. When I get home I check my email, answer everything that needs answering and then I’m done. No more checking and checking during the day. Ok so I am only 2 months into said new job so I’m not sure I will always find it liberating!

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Laura Pugh • July 7, 2009 at 9:10 pm

My email situation is so out of control I should just start over. My husband and I have an account together with over a thousand (that’s one THOUSAND) unread messages. Mostly junkmail. So why don’t we delete it? I guess I’m waiting for him to do it in case it’s something he wants to keep. He’s probably waiting for me to do it, but I’ve got my own email account to worry about. It’s got thousands of messages in the inbox too (but at least they are all read).

I suffer from “i might need it at some point” syndrome. The problem is, I get so disgusted with myself and feel so yucky about it that it’s worse than if I deleted something I may need some day. Isn’t it amazing how any type of clutter, even cyber clutter, can weigh you down? You should see the mess that is my “bookmarks”! :)

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PastaQueen • July 7, 2009 at 9:43 pm

@Laura Pugh – Earlier this year I had a computer problem which resulted in me losing all my bookmarks…and it was such a relief! They were gone, never to return, and I didn’t have to sort through them or worry about them. I would never have done it on my own, but I’m glad it happened.

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Liz D. • July 8, 2009 at 12:37 am

PQ- THANKS A TON for posting this and for putting the link to the Inbox Zero. I SO needed this. I’ve been overwhelmed by my email lately and it is truly getting out of hand. I went to the 43 Folders site and watched the video and I swear he was talking just for me! I got right on my email (work) and sorted and made folders and acted right then on a few things that I’ve just been ‘meaning to get to’ for weeks. I am down to 3 things in my inbox, and I left them there only because I have a call regarding them tomorrow. But now I will have to remember to regularly visit all the new folders I created, like “action needed” often enough to get the work done. But I feel SO MUCH better. And you my dear woman were the catalyist. Thanks a ton.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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