E-mail is a fabulous, wonderful thing that speeds the process of communication as well as a way to get tons of information. There are listservs and newsletters everywhere, including this one! They easily accumulate in our mailboxes. This does not even include the e-mail from co-workers and friends. Unlike a physical mailbox, they can keep piling up without demanding that we discard them. Often we tell ourselves that we’ll get to them eventually. Yet there are things we can do to control the demands of our e-mail.
First, you need to deal with your e-mail – the pattern you establish from here on out. When you read your e-mail, you need to choose an action. Do you need to respond? Do you need to delegate it? Do you need to take some action before anything more? Can you delete it? Do you need to save it? Some of these will be addressed as you read on, but you need to figure out when you are reading each e-mail what action you need to take. Then take the action!
Second, de-clutter. What do you have that you don’t need? Delete it. If you are subscribing to things that you are regularly not reading, unsubscribe. From many years ago, I subscribed to some library related listservs, and I didn’t unsubscribe for a long time. I did manage to delete them as they came in, but the e-mail notification distracted me… oooh, new mail. It was information that was coming in that had lost relevance for me. Do you have any of that? You can always sign up later if it becomes important.
What if you have e-mails that are relevant though not urgent? I adore the NAPO listserv- the questions and answers, and the ideas it generates. It is a fabulous resource. The number of e-mails coming in during a given day varies, but trends toward around 50 a day. Hopefully, you can understand that I might fall behind in my keeping up with them! I am reluctant to just delete them. This is where you need to realistically evaluate your ability and commitment to make time to look through any build-up of e-mails. There comes a time when your time is more valuably spent elsewhere. In my case, those NAPO e-mails are archived on their website, so I can always find them later.
Remember the goal is to de-clutter, to reduce the number of things distracting and demanding time that you don’t have. A general rule for all organizing is to ask yourself when you don’t need something currently, if you can get the same information easily if you discard it now. If you can, then you can get rid of it. As a society we keep way to much stuff and that electronic stuff seems easier to hold onto, but this is no reason to not get strict with yourself and delete it.
Third, make folders to collect specific information. Most e-mail programs offer this feature; you can choose the title and even tell it which items to put in the folder. You can do this manually as well. Setting up folders allows you to focus on your priorities. If you filter all the less important things into folders, the e-mail that remains in your inbox is likely to be things that need your attention.
Consider whether you could use a folder for things that require follow-up. You want to keep the e-mail as a reminder that you’ll need to check with someone else down the road, but does not need action for a while. If you have folder dedicated to this, you check that folder periodically and see at a glance what is approaching.
Your imagination is your limit as far as how many and what folders you create. They need to make sense to you and help you reduce clutter and distractions. I have several folders that sort automatically. I also make sure that I move the non-sorted items that come in, into folders after I have taken some action, but might require more action down the road. I like to keep the general inbox for items requiring my action and short enough that I can see everything without scrolling. For me, if it requires scrolling, I start to feel overwhelmed and I know I need to make time to deal with it.
We cannot live or work without e-mail. It is the way the world is, so we need to take control of it. Like so much in life, we need to make time to work on our e-mails, whether that is deleting, sorting, or archiving. It is worthwhile to set aside time in our schedules for doing just that. With some determination and planning, we can save money and create systems that work, without spending money on a program that claims to solve our electronic clutter. As with so much, finding what works for you is the ultimate goal, so what can you do to solve your e-mail clutter?