Those of you who are prisoners to their email, whose work is very "email-centric", who live out of their "Inbox" know what it's like: to have an inbox with close to (or, in my case, well over) 10,000 messages, to flit back and forth between messages seemingly without aim or reason, to somehow try to make priorities out of such an enormous amount of messages and watch nervously as the quantity grows every day. Before long you are so busy with your email you start believing that spending your day in your inbox is equivalent to "getting work done". And what generally happens is you stop making calls, you stop meeting people, you are so busy in that inbox with these thousands of messages, you try to keep track of the new stuff coming in, you tell yourself you will "deal with them" at some stage, some you respond to, some you flag for later...but they all stay right there in your inbox, they never leave. Then you start feeling funny about deleting messages. What if one day you will need that obscure message that Joe Schmoe sent you back on October 7, 2008 ?
A while back I found out about two "systems" of getting work done more efficiently, and before long I realised they were somehow connected to each other. The first one was the GTD method: Getting Things Done. This system for getting organized and optimizing workflow developed by David Allen was not specific to email at all, and actually wasn't exactly what I needed to get out of my email problem.
But as soon as I started reading about the second one, I realized I was on to something. Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" method is essentially some sort of adapted GTD for email. I won't get into too much detail here since Merlin does it well enough himself on his websites and videos, but I will tell you how I ended up adapting it to my own workflow and got myself to "Inbox Zero". In the past I used an email filing system of dozens upon dozens of folders: by country, by client, by product, you name it. No wonder my inbox grew to be so enormous: who has the patience, the courage or the time to go through every email message, deal with it and then start filing it in the right folder or subfolder when your filing system is that extensive. But my own version of the Inbox Zero system only requires three folders: Action, Filing and Later.
Once messages come into my inbox I do the following: if I can deal with the matter at hand immediately, that's what I do and then I either delete or file it in the Filing folder. If the message cannot be dealt with immediately, either because it requires me to make a phone call, create a spreadsheet, scan some papers or whatever else I need to do before I can consider it dealt with, it goes into the Action folder. I check the Action folder a number of times a day to ensure it doesn't become like another "fat" inbox from my past and go through the items one by one, getting things done. Then there are items I can deal with later, joke emails that I might not be able to read immediately and delete, potentially interesting videos or articles I might want to spend time going through etc. These go into my Later folder. These items are not necessarily time sensitive and I get to them when I have a moment. Anything else goes into my Filing folder, or gets deleted. With today's "Search" features in email clients and webmail services there is no need for a detailed filing system anymore. Anything you're looking for is only a "searchbox" away. That's all there is to it. My inbox is no longer a repository for a few generations' worth of email. Now I am on top of stuff, I deal with things immediately, no procrastination, I follow everything I need to be aware of as it happens, not retrospectively or retroactively. And I absolutely love it. Yes this requires a lot of self-discipline. Yes, it took me a few years to work up the courage to really set this in motion. And when I decided to go for it, getting rid of those 10,000 + messages was a daunting task, but I got there ultimately. Now every day I have to make sure I stay on top of it. From now on this is a way of life. So long as email will remain the "lingua franca" of our business, I will have to make sure I stick to the program. But if anyone out there reading this happens to be an email slave like I used to be, take the time to go through some of Merlin Mann's stuff, check out 43 Folders and some of his other sites. You won't regret it.