Two Simple Tips to Win Back Your Inbox and Save Your Sanity

No new mail!

I find that, when I leave my inbox open all day, it owns me. Messages come in. I respond to them. New ones fill in. The cycle never ends. A productivity killer, for sure (unless email happens to be your form of productivity).

In prior efforts to combat this process, I simply closed my mail application and opened it when needed. This is a fairly effective technique. The only problems arose when I wanted to send a message. All it took was opening the application -- and there I was again trying to keep up with the onslaught.

inbox zero

In trying to find a fix, I’m using two techniques that have helped to save my sanity: Regulate and Triage. One involves a tool; the other a process. 

Regulate: Better Control Receiving and Sending Messages

regulate with pause and unpauseThe first, regulate, comes with the help of a Gmail plug-in, Inbox Pause. Simply install Inbox Pause and it does exactly what the name says it does: pause your email. You can send email at any time while only receiving email when you ask for it. It offers on-demand pause/unpause at the click of a button -- or you can set a schedule to unpause at certain times of the day to better regulate the flow.

Go through your inbox once, and then go back to what you were doing without the distraction of new messages coming through. For me, every two hours is just long enough to focus for awhile and then take a break to check my messages. The frequency does fluctuate with busyness any given day or week.

Triage: Assess and Assign Priority

triage with now, soon, and later foldersThe second thing that has helped me is triage. In other words, assigning priority to mail as it comes in after regulating it. This happens manually. I have two folders, “soon” and “later.” The inbox is effectively my “now” folder, so you can think of it as “now,” “soon,” and “later.” These are undefined times, but effective enough to establish three layers of priority. “Soon” could be by the end of the day, and “later” could be by the end of the week depending on what works best for you.

As I go through my inbox, if I can’t take care of something “now,” I decide if it’s important to get to “soon” or “later.” Then, when I’m back in communications mode, I’ll go through each folder in order of urgency until I’m back at inbox zero. I’m usually at zero by the end of each day though, sometimes, there is carryover in the “later” folder.

Any Downsides?

Sure, there are some downsides. I do miss timely emails on occasion. For instance, if an impromptu meeting is set up to happen within an hour or two, I may miss the memo. Though I may sometimes be late, I’ve never missed a meeting. Email is a passive communications tool and should be used appropriately— text messaging and IM are better for more urgent matters.

That’s it. These two simple techniques have allowed me to own email instead of it owning me. I’m sure there are other ways to utilize the Regulate and Triage concept. If you have a similar or better technique, please feel free to share it with us.  

Tom is vice president of design and works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He has over two decades of experience as a designer and team coach, and works with clients such as the University of Pennsylvania and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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