I’m a great believer in systems and analysis. In fact I think the whole world is one big interconnected system… But that’s a story for another day. One of the systems that is the biggest challenge to working out what needs doing and doing it is the email inbox. In most companies the email inbox seems life consuming! And it makes you completely reactive, if you are not careful.

The steady state of an inbox isn’t empty. It is full. Really full.

That doesn’t make me feel good. How can you fix that?

Lets look at the system and optimise it or change it! Why is it full? Well, because there’s more stuff coming in than going out. Okay. Not genius I know, but bear with me. There are two ways we can fix the problem:



Well, less in is tricky. Have less friends/co-workers, or get ones who don’t email? May be not. Send less emails so there aren’t so many replies? May be. But that might mean being even less proactive. Not good. However, you could pick up the phone. It saves those explosive email threads that generate text at a volume of knots. Sometimes you can’t reach the person on the phone. Next solution please!

More out. Read faster? Delete faster? Actually. For me, the issue is to read less. How MANY TIMES do you look at each email in your inbox? If the answer is once, you are in great shape. If it is more than once, then you have a huge opportunity to get better results and be more efficient. Read emails once then delete , forward or reply! (or archive them, in an unstructured system, if that is what your job requires). Problem solved. For most of us, or at least for me it used to be, that any given email was read many many times. Even if we don’t reread it, we still trip over that email again and again each time we are looking for another one, and we don’t deal with it. Why? For me it is mostly these:

  • This will take too long to do right now.
    • Ok. If it is really going to take that long, then put a time in the diary to process it. File the email – I drag it straight on to my outlook calendar. Or, reply to the email saying you aren’t able to commit to helping right now, if you can’t.
  • Might do this later.
    • Deadly! Will you really do it laterer? Why not now? Be brutal: Delete it or do it. Done.
  • Might need this one day.
    • Well, file it then, if you really must!
  • Might forward this to some one.
    • Well, do it then! Right now.

OK. Hopefully we have the building blocks of a better system. Now, that should work for you – even if you use a blackberry like I did in the past. I ditched that. That’s another story. Now, just the small question of how to get from here to there. That is from the 1,000+ emails, to the empty inbox. Set a “high water mark”. Commit to having ‘n’ less emails in your inbox at the end of the day than there were at the beginning. Make sure that ‘n’ is a reasonable number. Something achievable, but enough to make a difference on those 1,000 emails within your lifetime!

The essence is this: MAKE PROGRESS. NOW!

OK. Time for me to eat my own therapy…

What’s stopping your inbox from being empty? What can you do about it?