Monday, June 15, 2009

The Organized Writer: Clearing out My Inbox

I recently had a garage sale. Not only did this give me the opportunity to make a few bucks, I was able to do a little decluttering. Clearing out physical clutter also results in clearing out emotional clutter. So in the spirit of making a clean sweep, I decided to tackle some of the mess I have accumulated in my Inbox.

Like many people, I often get an email I don’t know what with. I can’t throw it out because I may need it someday, but I don’t know how to organize it, and so I postpone any decision. The result is an Inbox stuffed with close to 2,000 emails. Clearly, this can’t go on!

For help in organization, I turned to my friend Google. Some of the best information I found came from Sally McGhee in “4 Ways to Take Control of your Email”. Ms McGhee says the first thing I have to understand is the difference between a reference email and an action email:

- Reference information is information that is not required to complete an action; it is information that you want to keep in case you need it later. For example: information from my publisher.
- Action information is information you must have to complete an action. For example: a list of edits my editor wants me to take a look at.

Let’s deal with reference emails first. As much as one third of the emails I receive may be reference information, so it is important that I have a system in place to deal with these emails. First, I must identify my objectives. What is really important for me to keep? What will help me achieve my goals? I currently have a folder called “Jokes” jam packed with jokes and gags I’ve received over the years. Do these jokes help me in my aim to be a better writer and to publish my work? I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s time to get rid of them. Identifying my objectives and goals will help me decide which emails to keep and which to pitch. Here are some other ways of deciding what to keep:

- Can I find the information somewhere else, such as the Internet?
- Am I likely to refer to the information in the next six months? If not, I should delete it.
- Does the email contain information I am required to keep for some legal reason? If not, delete it.

Once I decide what to save, I must create a folder in my personal files area in which to keep them. For example, one of my folders may be “Publishing Information” with subfolders listing my three publishers. That way when important information arrives, I can slip it into the appropriate folder for easy retrieval later. Name folders in meaningful ways for you. For more information check out Sally’s McGhee’s article “Create an Effective Reference System”.

Now that I’ve figured out how to save reference emails, I need to deal with the rest of my daily emails. This is my dedicated email processing time. I want to tackle this job when I have few or no interruptions. My objective is to bring my Inbox to zero, so I need to get through them as quickly as I can. There are four things I can do with each action email:

Delete it
Do it
Delegate it
Defer it

Delete it. The same criteria for deciding what to keep as reference material is the same for deciding what to keep as action material. If the email is not important to my main objectives, if the information can be found elsewhere, if I will not be referring to the information in the next six months, or if I am not required to keep the information, then I can delete the email.

Do it. Can I deal with this action email in the next two minutes? If so, I must do it now.

Delegate it. Is this something someone else can deal with? If so, I must delegate it now.

Defer it. Any email I cannot delete, delegate or deal with in the next two minutes must be defered. Because this is my dedicated e-mail processing time, I need to defer it and deal with it after I am done processing my e-mail. About 10 percent of e-mail messages have to be deferred. To make sure I don’t forget about this email, I can turn it into a “Task” in Outlook, or set up a reminder to deal with it later in the Calendar feature.

It’s going to take me some time to get through my backlog and bring my Inbox to zero. Sally McGhee suggests I devote a little time on it everyday. But the results will be worth it.

Do you clear your Inbox everyday? Do you have a system in place to keep important emails? Or do you accumulate emails, never quite knowing when to delete?


Nayuleska said...

My work inbox is clear and all nicely organised. My other inboxes ( Yes. I'd need an entire day to trawl through hotmail. at least 2k emails. One day I'll declutter.

I'll definitely be decluttering my room before the autumn (hopefully moving out of parents' home). it could take a while...I'm such a hoarder!

Captain Hook said...

I despise having emails in my inbox, so I have always transferred them to folders as soon as I read them. And I go through and delete any unnecessary folders at the beginning of each month. The emails that used to go in that folder get marked as Spam.

Janet said...

My name is Janet, and I'm an organizer. My e-mails are dealt with immediately (read, deleted, or moved to appropriate folder). I really don't know if I could handle looking at 2000 e-mails - yikes!

I like Sarah's suggestion - I'll have to use that and sort through folders at the beginning of the month so they don't get too full (thanks, Sarah).

Good luck, Jana - and great suggestions in this post for becoming a better organizer. I've heard of that method for paper coming into your house - deal with it immediately, then it won't clutter up your living space.

Karyn Good said...

I usually go and do a mad purge every couple of months but your system sounds better! Now, as Janet mentioned, I should apply it to all paper coming into the house.

Silver James said...

Hello, my name is Silver and I'm suffocating under a molehill of email. (I only have about 500 in each mail address and I do try to get each one organized at least once a month...or so...*headdesk*)

Okay. I'm setting aside one day this week to do it. Seriously. I am. Why are ya'll giggling so hard? I mean it....

Ban said...

hee hee i have an inbox a save folder and an orders folder. that's it. i'm one of those who thrives on spring cleaning, summer cleaning, fall cleaning ... you get the picture. i have so much fun going though my house de-cluttering !

Jana Richards said...

Hi Yunaleska,
I'm afraid my work Inbox is almost as bad as my one at home. If I get hit by a bus or something and someone else goes into my email, they're going to fall over when they see the mess in there. It's a slow time at my office right now so I vow that I will do some purging and cleaning.

I also have hotmail and yahoo accounts that need cleaning as well. They're not quite as bad as my Outlook, but they're getting there.

I'm probably better about getting rid of "things" than I am about any of my emails or writing stuff. I keep thinking I may need old versions of stories etc. The truth is I rarely do. I've got to keep my objectives in mind.


Jana Richards said...

Oh Captain, you're my hero! I wish some of those organizational skills would rub off on me. It's something I struggle with. Sometimes I feel really snowed under by the weight of my Inbox and other clutter, and I'm sure it affects my writing. It's hard to concentrate when my head's full of distractions and clutter.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I wonder if there's a 12 step program for people who hoard emails? Maybe I should google that.

I like Sarah's suggestion too. I know I've got folders in the Inbox at home and at work that are no longer needed and are just taking up space. If I made it a routine every month it would be much easier to keep control over.

I am getting better at dealing with paper as it comes into the house. I toss junk mail into the blue box right away. Bills go into a "To be Paid" file. My biggest problem is my "To be filed" folder. It's getting pretty full. I really should get on that.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Yes, I do a mad purge every once in a while myself, but I'd really like to get into the habit of keeping my Inbox clean. And to do that it means working on it every day. Yikes!

I believe the Flylady suggests setting a timer and doing as much cleaning or organizing as you can until the timer goes off. I think this is a really good idea. Sometimes you look at a job and it is just so big and overwhelming that you don't even start. But if you can break down this huge job into little chunks of say, half an hour each, it doesn't seem so onerous. I'm going to try that with my Inbox and see how it goes.


Jana Richards said...

Oh Silver, I'm so glad you're here! At last, a kindred spirit!

It's going to take me a while to get my Inbox into shape, probably many days. With new emails that I'm getting from now on, I vow to deal with them quickly and efficiently. The old ones might take a while to get to.

Good luck with yours!


Jana Richards said...

Hi ban,
Where was I when the neat and tidy genes were being passed out? Probably under a mountain of clutter. I wish I could be like you!


Suse said...

Hi Jana, it's funny how our minds some times glom on to the same things. I just spent one night last week creating folders for my emails at home. I feel much better now that there's some organization there.

However, my work emails are another story. Hopefully I'll have some time over July & August to purge.

I used to be neat and tidy. I really don't know what happened. I've papers and books all over my desk at work. AND at home I've piles of papers & books & magazines all over the house - no room has been spared the piles.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, great post. Those 4 D's are an easy way to remember.

I have an empty inbox at the moment but it's only because my laptop crashed awhile back and I lost all my email, saved and otherwise. Although I still miss some of it, it was a relief for some of it to be gone.

AS I said in my last post, now that I know how to make rules for my inbox to follow, my email directs itself and I always know where it is. :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
My house used to be neat and tidy too. I think it was 1983.

I have a bad habit of making piles, too. A couple of months ago when I wrote another blog about The Organized Writer and paper clutter, I cleaned off my desk and had it nice and neat. But slowly the junk is creeping back. Time for another purge there as well.

Keeping clutter under control, whether it's on your desk or in your Inbox, takes energy, and sometimes it's easier to just let things pile up. But the ironic thing is that living in a cluttered environment saps you of energy as well.

Happy unpiling.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I chuckled when I read your comment because while I was away for retreat my husband worked on my computer, installing a new motherboard. Everything had been backed up, but he couldn't find all my old emails when he put it back together. Though I didn't want to lose some of the stuff that I'd saved in folders, it was actually kind of a relief that the huge Inbox was gone. But then he found the file in the backup and reinstalled it and I got back every single one.

So you really like the new system you put in place? I'm going to reread your blog and see if that's something that would work for me.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, yeah, I do like it. Not only because the emails are filed until I need them, but because they are filed by topic. So if I want to see all the emails that pertain to the course I'm taking, I don't have to wade through my other 50 emails to find them. And Outlook shows the nbr of unread emails at a glance so I know if I have any to read in that file.

Helena said...

Another fascinating topic! Not just because I can so totally relate to the "thousands of emails' that everyone talks about, but because, Jana, and thank you so much for this, you have drawn my attention to such commonsense solutions to the cluttered inbox syndrome.

Why is it we packrats feel the need to cling to every bit of info that comes our way? For my part, it is equal parts procrastination (I'll get to it tomorrow, or next week) and indecision (What if I need this as soon as I delete it? As if.)

Thanks for jolting me out of my email doldrums. My name is Helena and I used to be incapable of deleting email.

Penny Rader said...

Hi! My name is Penny and I am an email hoarder and a compulsive piler. I have (gulp) 20+K emails in my inbox. I know! It's horrible! And that doesn't count my work email, or the email addy I use for my publisher's writer/reader loop.

Some of it is stuff I haven't had time to read. Some it is stuff I want to save for future reference and need to create folders for them. Some of it is stuff I need to reply to, but I don't want to do it right now, so, of course, it gets lost in my inbox. Some of it is jokes, because darn it, sometimes I need to laugh.

Most of the above applies to my life in general, not just email.

Being organized does not come naturally to me. I like having my stuff organized. It's the getting it organized, and most importantly, keeping it organized that I struggle with.

Jana Richards said...

Thanks Anita. I have to think about setting up that system. Whatever I can do to make my email work for me.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I have no idea why we packrats feel we have to keep everything. Perhaps if I knew that, I'd have an empty Inbox.

If I were unorganized but it really didn't bother me, I wouldn't care if I had a zillion emails crowding my Inbox. But it does bother me, so that's why I was inspired to look into solutions. I hope to put some of these ideas into place and I hope I've inpired you as well.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Penny,
Thanks for joining us. It's great to have you here.

I can so relate to what you're saying. There never seems to be enough time to look after everything. Couple that with a tendency towards procrastination and indecision (that's me!) and you end up with a whooping number of emails.

I think the only thing that's going to work for me is the dedicated email processing time. I have to set aside time to deal solely with them. And I'll have to do the same with the backlog - set aside time to deal just with them. I think I've been reluctant to make the time to keep organized because when I do have time I always think I should be writing. But to be productive in my writing, I need to be organized.

Being organized doesn't come naturally to me either. I wish it did. Good luck with your organizing efforts. I hope you come visit us again.