Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday is Empty Inbox Day!

Making "Read Only Friday" into "Day of Action Monday"

My boss came up with the idea that we should not get into any trouble on Fridays - lest we spend the weekend working on solving things we broke on Friday. A recruiter recently shared that some of her clients call it "Read-only Friday". And that about says it.

In this post I'd like to offer some thoughts on what to do on "Read-only Fridays" - namely how to wrangle your inbox into shape before you leave for the weekend. (O.K. I realize that many of us in IT don't have a weekend to speak of, but there it is...)

So, first - why would you want to wrestle with your inbox to begin with?

Have you ever experienced this? You come into the office fresh from the weekend, and everything is looking rosy until you open your email. And then you get this sinking feeling seeing all the messages you did not clear up the day, the week, or the month before? Most of the messages are vendor spewage, or outright spam. And how different really are the subject lines "Rich - Can we schedule ameeting for 1/2 Hour on Tuesday?" and "V I A G R A  C H E A P !"? 

But you have left those messages to age in your inbox like stinky European cheese and by now fully half of the messages that are not spam are questions that are no longer active or actionable. Over time this leads to a feeling of helplessness, and a sense of being overwhelmed. If only you could see at a glance which messages in that steaming pile - that "hot mess" are actually important?

So if Friday is "Read Only Friday", then let's make Monday our "Day of Action!" when we hit the ground running! Here is how...

Strategize the folders in your Inbox

Use a small number of folders, that are organized according to how "actionable" a message is. Are you going to respond immediately? Are you going to cycle back later when more information is available? Do you just need to file the message where you can find it later?

Why not have hundreds of specially organized folders? The main thing is that we need our messages to be findable. Can you take in all those folder names in a glance? Can you be disciplined enough to maintain the folders over time. Instead of creating lots of folders, create only as many as you need to organize your messages by how you will respond to them. Then learn and use the search feature of your email system to find specific messages in those few folders. Unless you have a personal assistant to organize your email for you - a complicated folder structure is not recommended.


Rules are made to be broken - I get hundreds of emails a day from automated systems - and these emails I need to have on hand and keep on file for a specific time period. I use rules to file them automatically into a few folders so they don't clutter up the inbox. And yes that adds to the number of folders in my view, but even so I only have six folders under my inbox!

The most important folders are: Inbox, Archive, ToDo, and Vendors.

Tasks or putting the Action in action...

I would argue against setting up a ToDo folder - because the premise there is that you will review the items in it later, like a task list. In my experience that never happens, so forget about that one. Instead just flag the message with a due date so that you get a reminder later on - or put it into your task list for later.

Converting your email messages into a task list is a discipline that you need to apply when you go through your work email. It's hard to get started, but it simplifies things a lot when you follow through. Why is that? It's because we don't have the capacity to hold more than one thought in our minds at a time. So - if you are trying to remind yourself about tasks that are not due today, or that you cannot act on today, your attention is divided from the tasks that are close at hand. And as we know only too well, attention divided leads to train wrecks.

OK so now we have folders and maybe even rules. And I'm going assume that you have already set up a SPAM filter, oh and don't forget that most commercial email and email lists you receive will allow you to unsubscribe from the marketing list using a link at the bottom. (Spend a half hour there unsubscribing and you will be surprised at the lightness of being you experience in the future.)


Tricks of clearing out the inbox

At the start you may have an inbox with several years of email. The goal is to reach nirvana, which is "Inbox Zero" - a term coined by Merlin Mann. You can find plenty of postings on this topic around the net. And even a discussion of the idea of declaring "email bankruptcy" where you just dump it all and give up. Perhaps impractical.

Email bankruptcy reminds me of an email server crash that occurred just before Christmas one year with no backups to be had.  Our VP was devastated because, as we learned, he stored all his contact information in email messages; but - our head of HR was ecstatic. "You mean I can ignore all those things that he told me to do before the holiday!!!"

Most of us do not have this luxury! Short of declaring bankruptcy, we need to learn how to manage our email. One of my favorite articles on managing email can be found on, and in the book "Upgrade your Life" by blogger Gina Trapani.

Approach the "hot mess" with a stick

So the thing is how do you approach several years or just a "hot mess" of email?
There are two arguments: "just start in and hack your way through", and "do a little each day."
It really depends on your temperament. I knew that I would not be able to get through my inbox doing a little each day, so I started by putting aside an afternoon with my email machete.

Rate emails by importance

Do you remember a childhood when you wrote away for an offer on the back of a cereal box? Boy it made you feel important when a letter or a box addressed to you came to the mailbox! In the early days of commercial email our systems were not connected, and every message was likely to have some importance. Then as we entered the era of internet email, unsolicited commercial email - or spam - began to flood our inboxes. And with email marketing today, even more of our email constitutes commercial marketing pitches. So even with a spam filter, at least 60% of our email is a marketing pitch of some kind. Needless to say we do not approach this rain of advertising with the anticipation of a little kid! Left uncontrolled it seems positively oppressive!

So what is the importance of each message? Why is that important? We're working to clear our plate of emails so that we can get down to business. But so often we are afraid to delete old messages.
We have to become connoisseurs of our email messages, and turn up our noses at any message that is not actionable. (Eeew, stinky spam! Yeeech, Nigerian scammer wants money! ) Any marketing message can be safely deleted - think about it - you're just going to get another in a few days from the same people!

Flip the column sort

My first trick is to use a rule to assign a category to every email from a coworker. Then I sort on the category and move all coworker's emails into my archive folder.

Now its time to sort on the From column. In this view all the marketing messages from a particular sender, or mailing list will be sorted in order. That makes it quick work to delete all the junk mail from the same sender with a quick mouse click. Also because you are now in the From sorted view
you can quickly apprehend particular correspondents. These are easily able to be deleted or moved into another folder. Delete, delete, delete! At this point you should be down to real email from correspondents outside your company.

The quick sort method

Flip the column sort back to "Date" or "Sent" view. Now we can get down to moving any items that are meaningful and actionable into our folder structure.  Along the way apply these rules:
  1. If you can respond immediately to a request - without further interaction - go ahead
    1. Don't stop to take on any projects!
  2. If you need to get back to somebody or work on something later do two things
    1. Let the person know that you will deal with it, and when
    2. Apply a "flag" to the message (a reminder to complete it on time), or put it in your task list
    3. Now relax a little bit each time because you don't have to worry that it will fall off your mental "list"!
  3. If the item you want to save is merely informational, put it in your Archive folder
    1. For me it is most important to track monthly online purchases, and for this I put all receipts into the Vendors folder. This is essential for filling out my monthly expense reports! It works so well I do this at my day job and at home for my home business!

The home stretch

At this point you should be able to wrassle the inbox itself down to zero. But of course we did cheat a little bit saving those emails in other folders, right?

If you use an email client like Outlook, or Apple Mail your emails are downloaded to your computer from a server. You may need to keep certain emails for a set length of time. Others you may want to keep longer. What I find is that I really don't often need email older than three years. Remember those automated messages I spoke about? They contain log files from various equipment... And those I am required to keep for a period of one year. And there are a lot of them! So periodically I run the archiving assistant in Microsoft Outlook.

The Outlook archive assistant can back up (archive) messages out of your inbox to a PST file, or it can delete the old messages.

What I do is keep only the last 6 months of information in most folders, and keep the emailed log data for a period of one year. Outlook allows you to set each folder with its own archive period - but you need to carefully start the archiving process to take advantage of this.



So I keep a minimum of email data in the email client program itself. However I use an archiving service that stores many more years of data in the cloud. That information is much more easily searched from a web page than an Outlook client bursting with messages!

If you are a home user, you could for example store most of your email in a Gmail account.
Gmail has its own concept of an archive. Old email messages are easily searched (Whether that is by you or the government is another discussion!)

The latest version of Gmail in beta as of July 2013 has tabs that correspond to categories similar to the folders I suggest above. It even filters marketing email into one folder automatically. And you can set up your own categories.

Alright - now you know what I will be doing with the last hour of my day today, Read Only Friday!