I love e-mail. I love its efficiency, its clarity and the fact that it creates a detailed, searchable record. E-mail also makes me a little nuts. If I’m away from it for a couple of hours, messages pile up. When I confront more than 50, I feel a combination of depression, weariness and low-grade panic, until I make that “unread” number disappear.
My method: Scan the pile for urgent notes from bosses, sources, friends or family, attending to the most important first. Then I go through the rest quickly, starting from the bottom. I delete junk. When I need to answer, I do so right away. If my response requires time, I make a note on my to-do list for later.
This strategy works fine, but I figured there must be someone who knows better than I how to handle the e-mail inbox, which many workers describe as their greatest obstacle to efficiency on the job. So I turned to an e-mail expert, Mark Hurst, 39, business consultant and author of the book "Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-Mail Overload."
I explained my system to Hurst and at least he didn’t laugh at me. “It’s just that you’re operating by default as best you can, with the tools and software you’ve been handed,” he said.
I leave my inbox cluttered with answered e-mails, figuring that I might want to refer back to something. Hurst says the best way to master your e-mail is to keep that e-mail inbox empty. He insists his system is easy and foolproof.
E-mail comes in “three flavors,” Hurst explains: irrelevant, relevant but not actionable, and actionable. Irrelevant includes spam and “reply all” notes from colleagues. Second is relevant but not actionable. “You might call it FYI stuff,” says Hurst, “stuff that you need to scan or know about, that you might even save somewhere or archive or have on hand.” The third is actionable. “I call that work,” says Hurst. It can come from a variety of sources, like a boss or a client.
Hurst recommends deleting irrelevant e-mails immediately. The second group, of relevant but not actionable e-mails, he advises moving to an archive folder. On Gmail, you can simply hit the “archive” button. Most other programs allow you to move e-mails into a folder outside your inbox.
Now you’re down to the e-mails that need your action, that constitute work. Hurst says you should move those out of the inbox, too, into a digital “to-do” folder. He even designed an online product that helps you do this, called Good Todo. You can use the free trial or pay $3 a month for the deluxe version.
According to Hurst, the inbox was not designed to be a to-do list, a note pad, an address book or a filing system. “It’s only appropriate to be used for one thing,” Hurst insists, “temporary storage.”