April 12, 2012
Here’s a question I get in nearly every class I teach. “What do I do with low-priority e-mail that I don’t need to attend to now but I know I may want to get to later? I tend to leave these in my inbox until I can read them, and so emptying the inbox like you recommend is hard to do.”
My solution? Tag it with a “Read Later” Category in Outlook (or use a “Read Later” Label in Gmail), and immediately move it out of your Inbox. And then schedule blocks of time on slower days to catch up on your low-priority mail reading.
If any of that sounds like Greek to you, here’s some background. If you’ve read my books then you know that I recommend you file your mail into one folder, and try to empty your Inbox each day. You know I do not recommend filing into 40 different topic-named folders. If you must use topics, then tag the mail with Outlook Categories (or Gmail Labels), and put them in one single folder (called the Processed Mail folder in Outlook, and in Gmail just use the Archive space). You can view mail grouped by topics later.
So for low priority e-mails that you tend to let hang in your inbox, this is a great solution that allows you to quickly empty your inbox. Just tag that mail with a category or label called “Read Later,” move it immediately out of the Inbox, and then read it later when you have a scheduled block of time for lower priority activities. You can even have several of these tags: “Read Later High Priority” for example. Or even “Categorize Later” should you have a complicated category system and need more time to think through your assignments on read mail later.
The most important step though is to get that mail out of the Inbox quickly, on the same day if possible. The inbox should be a triage location—a quick-decision-making area for incoming mail. Make decisions quickly, convert some to tasks, and get the mail out of the inbox. An overloaded inbox hampers such quick decisions, and that leads to time wasted on rehashing old mail. And a jumbled Inbox allows requests to drop through the cracks. Rather, use the Inbox like the receiving lobby of an emergency room—quickly decide what to do with the new patient, and move them on quickly to the right place.