Imagine that you get into work, and your cell phone starts to ring. It’s your manager, and she urgently needs you to send an email chain from three weeks ago that has pertinent information related to a decision that needs to be made immediately.
She’s boarding a plane, so you have three minutes to find the email. You look at your inbox, and there are 2,673 emails, and you can’t recall the title or original sender of the email thread. After several minutes of aimlessly searching, you start getting texts from your boss: “They’re about to close the gate. Did you find the email?”
Then, bingo, you find it. You go to hit “send,” and a message from Outlook states your inbox is full and you cannot send anything until you clear some space.
That almost never happens to me. Like the fanatically sparse office desk, a well-pruned email account is my version of having a sense of peace and order at work. It’s my own personal productivity-boosting oasis that gives me a sense of comfort and clarity whether I am in an important meeting or just casually chatting with colleagues.
Team members frequently ask me how I always find the most obscure emails so quickly. They want to know my secret for staying organized in the sea of emails, meetings, and calls. They’ve even asked me to teach them the basics of managing an inbox. I find this funny, because I like to think that in 20 years of being part of global communications teams in Silicon Valley, I should be able to speak eloquently on a topic less banal than email.
My secret is actually quite simple: Meet the delete. After you’ve read and processed an email, delete it. Make it go away. Get comfortable with the idea of obliterating your low-priority and redundant conversations. Get rid of the clutter.
It’s a scary notion for a lot of the “What if I need it?” people, the doubters, and those who are still haunted by losing their entire senior thesis the night before it was due.
Think about it like this: what if our analog ancestors had tried to save every scrap of paper on which they ever jotted a note? We’d all be drowning in badly written memos and half-baked ideas.
Here’s how I try to make sure email doesn’t drown me:
• Decide and delete daily. Make a rapid decision about each incoming email. It should quickly fit into one of three mental categories as soon as you read it: “Need to respond,” “should file,” or “delete.” You don’t need to respond to every email you receive.
• The monthly zap. Sit down at the end of each month and delete the emails you sent during that month the prior year. You’ll be surprised how satisfying it can feel.
• Cut email in half. Of the 300-plus emails I get each day, roughly half require no response from me at all. They usually get deleted right after I read them and commit the salient points to memory. Of the remaining half, I respond to most within 24 hours. To avoid redundancies, if I’m following a long, multi-email chain, I only keep the last email in the thread and ruthlessly delete the ones that came before it.
• Be a power filer. Anything that is not urgent can be looked at later, but if it’s not filed, you’ll never do it. My strategy is to be “power filer.” For instance, my “to read” folder contains links and articles that will take more than one minute to review. They’re not urgent, but they are important. I save these to be read on planes when I’m traveling on business. I also have a “how-to” folder to immediately file anything that has to do with instructions (how to request a vacation, how to open a PO, how to upload a performance review, etc.) so I don’t spend any time looking for things that should really take no time.
• Chop the block. Some people swear that the key to email management is to only check email during specific times of the day. While that seems like a workable strategy for anyone whose email may not contain an urgent question, problem or decision point, many of us don’t have that luxury. My responsibilities include management of a cross-functional, global team who may need counsel or a decision on a moment’s notice. My strategy is to check email throughout the day at my desk or phone. I don’t go to bed with unread email, and when I wake up, I check everything that came in overnight to ensure there are no emergencies.
The power of Delete means that my inbox stays light and easily searchable. The remaining emails that haven’t been deleted or filed make up my active to-do list. What’s left are about 150 emails in my inbox that cannot fall off my radar, but as each issue gets resolved or each task gets completed, I delete that email. As a result, I tend to send fewer, more specific and concise emails because I know exactly how many are not really necessary in the first place.
I know email habits are built and honed over time. It’s taken me just under 20 years to figure out how to do it in a way that works for me. But like any other habit, they can be molded and changed with a little discipline and the belief that the payoff will ultimately make your life easier.