How to (Finally) Gain Control of Your In-box
Do you feel as if your e-mail is the boss of you? Charles Duhigg, the best-selling author of Smarter, Faster, Better, helps transform your relationship with the ping.
Search and Destroy
“Don’t let your e-mail box become a to-do list,” something that you work your way through from top to bottom, says Duhigg. “It’s the worst to-do list possible, because literally every-one can add items to it.” On the way to work, spend 10 minutes thinking through your priorities for the day and setting a realistic start and end time to a morning e-mail session. Then seek out important e-mails that require immediate responses—those about priority projects and those from your boss. Open those messages only. One strategy: Hit reply on each important message, and let the responses sit on your desktop. There’s your to-do list: this stack of replies. Use your prescribed e-mail time to write thoughtful, cogent responses, rather than attempting to tear through a larger quantity of less relevant stuff.
Just. Don’t. Reply.
This advice goes beyond dealing with obvious junk mail. Duhigg is talking about a message from your coworker two desks down. He maintains that “often people are asking questions when they can probably find the answers on their own. And if I don’t reply, they’re going to go find those answers.” How do you implement this kind of thinking without feeling…rude? By worrying more about yourself and your own time—gulp!—than the time of others. A mantra to practice: “There’s no reason I should respond to people simply because they e-mail me.”
File for Later (Wink, Wink)
Duhigg recommends a high-level procrastination technique that he feels can change your view of e-mail: “Have a side folder for messages that you don’t want to deal with at the moment but are hesitant to delete.” Drag e-mails (unopened or opened) into this folder without reservation. “I think you’ll be surprised how unguilty you’ll feel about it,” he says. Here’s where the magic happens: Leave the e-mails there long enough and they’ll take care of themselves. “You’ll probably discover that most of them never really needed your attention,” says Duhigg. “If it’s really a big deal, people will e-mail you again.” To build up your tolerance for this approach, check the side folder weekly. If something in there does need a response, you’ll still be in the ballpark for replying. As you get more comfortable, check less often—every two weeks, monthly. Duhigg checks his exactly never: “I put e-mails in the folder to pretend that I’m going to pay attention to them someday, but I’m not.” For him—and maybe you—it’s a step toward deleting without guilt, like moving the clothes you never wear to the attic before carting them to Goodwill.
Re-think the “In-box Zero” Dream
Emptying out your inbox religiously is probably a waste of time (and maybe really about something else), says Duhigg. You can reduce your clutter by unsubscribing to mailing lists. Beyond that, hitting delete, delete, delete may be satisfying, but why bother? “Are you doing it because it makes you feel good or because it's actually useful?” says Duhigg. “And if it’s not useful, maybe you don’t need a clean in-box—and maybe you should stop using that as a barometer of success.”