Decluttering is a popular topic. I’ll be honest: I love it when I do it, but it is not my natural setting. My natural setting is collecting. However, there is one area in my life where I have the cold, dispassionate, ruthless decluttering approach of any home organization maven: emails.
I have hesitated to write this post in case I curse myself, but I bragged to a few friends about my email prowess and so far my email related hubris hasn’t caught up with me, so I’m ready to shout it from the mountain tops: there are only ever about 10 emails in my inbox. At a maximum.
As library professionals we get a lot of emails. As leaders we need to be able to see what’s new information when it’s new and get to old information quickly when we need it. How do you do that when your email inbox is at 100 emails, 200 emails, dare I say, 300 emails?
Sure, new emails rise to the top and sure, you can search, and sure, you can flag things. But all of that is so much easier when there are about ten emails in your inbox. It saves you time and it sets you up nicely for when you are going to be out of the office for an extended period of time.
Here is how I do it:
When I get to work, I do a quick run through of my emails. I go through everything in the inbox and do one of three things:
1) Deal with it right now
If it will take me five minutes or less (a quick “Ok, thanks!” to let someone know I’ve received the email, for example) or if I’m just going to delete it, I do it right now.
2) File it in a folder
I have a few folders for ongoing projects or email I’m going to need to reference sometime in the future. In addition to folders pertaining to certain projects, I have one folder for general future reference, as well as a folder for time off requests, and a folder for job feedback. I try not to keep too many emails, even in these other folders. Really test yourself: can you come up with three examples of times you will really need this information? Is this information stored anywhere else?
3) Flag it
These are the very rare items that stay in my inbox. These are actionable items or information I will need for a specific date in the near future. If I get a confirmation email for a professional development event in two weeks, I flag that email so I have the information at the ready. The flag helps me remember to delete it when the event is over. Or, if I received a message about a sink that needs to be fixed in the building, I’ll flag the email until I have time to put in a work order. Once I’ve dealt with the task (put in the work order), I delete the email.
For the rest of the day, I just deal with new emails in one of those three ways. The flagged emails get incorporated in my byzantine to-do list system (which is very good, but a post for another day. It involves Outlook, sticky notes, dry erase markers, and dance breaks).
I also clean out folders periodically. I have recurring tasks that remind me to clean out my deleted emails (once a week: delete everything older than a week), my sent emails (once a month: delete everything older than six months), and my future reference folders (once a month: delete things that are no longer relevant).
This may sound like it takes a lot of time and the initial set up will take a bit of time, but ultimately you save so much time not having to hunt for things and you save yourself so much embarrassment by not missing out on things! If you have a lot of emails in your inbox right now, don’t feel overwhelmed. If you can carve out some time each day to deal with what’s in your inbox and make folders and delete stuff, great! If you are swamped for time, just deal with the new stuff that comes into your email in the way I’ve described and maybe sort through one or two older emails every day. You’ll catch up before you know it!
I have used this system for something like 8 years and in 4 different positions and it has always been effective. I know some people are more nervous about deleting emails than I am and make a folder for all of their emails and keep them for a month, and then clean out that folder. There are lots of ways to make this system your own but I would really encourage you to keep your inbox between 0 and 10 emails and to regularly clean out your future reference folders in whatever shape they take. Join me in the joyous world of email decluttering!