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Small shifts to make a big difference in your relationship to your email inbox

One of my coaching clients faced a problem a lot of us deal with:

I keep struggling to pull the important emails out of a pile and follow up in a reasonable amount of time with the people I have not heard back from yet. At the moment, I'm able to barely keep up by relying on my memory, continually re-deciding whether an email in the pile is important (usually external communications with, say, a donor [to the organization for which she works]) every time I skim my inbox, and checking my sent file (another mixed bag of important with unimportant) every few weeks.  Needless to say it's hardly a well oiled machine. It seems like there must be a way of automating some of these problems away.

I suggested some techniques for her to try:

You're on the right track: Don't use your memory for these "waiting for" items in email. I use a label ("waiting for", unsurprisingly) with a distinctive color (cool, ignorable light purple) and review them once a week, along with the rest of my weekly review. If I know something needs follow-up before my next review, I schedule that follow-up as a dated task in OmniFocus.

Note that I will also use this label on sent mail. Gmail and some other programs have the ability to display all messages with a given label, regardless of what folder or mailbox they're in [meaning they can still be tracked by that label while not being constantly on view in the inbox]. That can be extremely handy and is worth watching for as a feature when deciding which program to use.

In my system, read emails that are unlabeled are done and have no further action (or I've captured that action in OmniFocus or my calendar as appropriate). My most commonly used labels are "task support" (for things I'll be doing today or tomorrow), "bills and statements" (which I tend to deal with once a week, en masse), "waiting for", and "w: talk with Joe" (which is a special sort of waiting for).

As for getting "waiting for" items out of your face between reviews, if the label isn't enough, use a folder, but be scrupulous about doing your weekly review and checking it. The relief from having to wonder if you've forgotten anything is worth the discipline, believe me!

If you want to track more details about something that's pending, just reply to yourself from that message with your note on the top (e.g., "Wait until 3/25 & see if resolved by Foo & Bar's meeting at the conference") and label the resulting email to yourself "waiting for".

Ten days later I got a great note from her:

Thank you so much for these great ideas. These are some of the changes I made with your advice and things are already much better:
  1. Automatically filter staff, donors, and partners (from other organizations) into different folders, so I don't have to mentally re-sort every time I read my inbox. Staff emails are mostly about little tasks that need to be take care of at some point, while donors deserved quick responses. So sorting emails by sender also helped automatically sort by priorities and group tasks. Filters are based on address book group, so I can easily add someone to new to the right group and filter doesn't need to be changed.
  2. BCC myself on emails that I might need to ping someone again for a response, filter them into a folder and then the filter also turns them red when the send date exceeds 7 days.
  3. Enter to do items in the appropriate program instantly and then archive the email.
  4. For my personal email, I similarly sorted messages by family, local friends, purchases, travel paperwork, etc.

Thanks again and I'll let you know if I find any other efficiencies!


I love seeing the lift people get from these kinds of small adjustments to the way they deal with the complexities of life. When something we spend so much time dealing with is involved, even savings of a second here and there really adds up over the months!

Posted on May 16, 2012 | Permalink

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