E-mail management—How to sort your e-mail gold

In part two of our series on e-mail management, our senior editor, Sandra Gerth, talked about how to set up your e-mail account more effectively. But now that you live in the e-mail castle of your dreams, how can you sort your e-mail riches without turning into a damsel in distress? Read on to find out!

Your e-mail castle


Processing e-mail doesn’t mean that you have to reply to each e-mail immediately; it means you should get it out of your in-box after reading it. Don’t keep e-mail in your in-box as a to-do list. Instead, reserve your in-box for e-mail you haven’t read yet.

For each e-mail that you open and read, you need to make a decision about what to do with it. Two questions can help you with that: Does the e-mail require you to take action? Does the sender request that you do something, for example, reply to his or her message?

If the e-mail is a newsletter, a FYI, or something else that doesn’t require you to do anything, there are two options:

1. Archive the e-mail in one of your folders if you think you’ll need the information later.

2. Delete it if you won’t need it again.

If the e-mail does require an action, there are three options:

1. Delegate: Forward the e-mail to someone else. You might then want to put the e-mail into the “waiting for” folder.

2. Do: Many people follow the two-minute rule introduced by David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done. If you can respond to the e-mail or do what the sender requests in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Other people even say do it right away if you can do it in less than five minutes. Scheduling the task and rereading the e-mail later would take up more time than doing it now. Once you have answered the e-mail, delete or archive it.

3. Defer: If it takes more than two (or five) minutes to answer or do what is requested, do it later. If it has a deadline, put it in your calendar. Otherwise, put it on your to-do list. If you use Gmail, you can use Boomerang to have the e-mail sent back to you at a later date. Then move the e-mail to your action/to-do folder.

Your e-mail castle


You have probably heard of In-box Zero. It’s a concept introduced by Merlin Mann and refers to the practice of emptying your e-mail in-box every day, with the help of the above-mentioned rules. Some people swear by it, and admittedly, it feels great to have an empty in-box.

But as I mention in my book Time Management for Writers, I personally think that In-box Zero can even hinder your productivity if you adhere to it too closely. Instead of focusing on your writing and other important things, you’ll spend your time in your in-box. Especially if you get a lot of e-mail, trying to achieve In-box Zero can be like the illusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—always beyond your grasp, since new messages arrive just as you have dealt with the last one.

My advice is not to waste time rereading e-mails multiple times, but don’t feel the need to process your e-mails every day. Most often, just looking at the subject lines without opening them is enough to let you know if your e-mails need attention—or if you should get back to your writing instead.

Sandra Gerth is a writer and an editor who divides her time between writing her own books and helping other writers revise and polish theirs. She’s also the author of a series of books for writers and will be holding master classes on writing and time management during the first Lesvos Lesfic event in June 2016

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