Taking Control of Your Inbox

John Tabita

Last week, I got reprimanded on Facebook. Justifiably, that is.

Like most of us who work and play in the social media space, it’s easy to get overloaded. So I try to automate as much as I can. I’ve set my blog to automatically post new articles to my Facebook Page as they’re published. Knowing it gets automatically updated (and since more people follow me on Twitter than Facebook), I tend to check my Facebook Page sporadically, at best. So when someone posted a question, I didn’t respond. That’s what got me into trouble.

What I didn’t realize is that there’s no native functionality to send an email notification when someone posts on your Page. I justified my lapse by telling myself that, if I’d only got an email, I wouldn’t have missed it.

I promptly apologized to the person I’d inadvertently ignored, then suggested the best way to contact me in the future is through my website’s contact form.

Later that day, as I was cleaning out my massively-overcrowded inbox, I found that this person had also emailed me from my contact form. Oops …

A few months earlier, I’d gotten fed up with my inbox, so I spent a few hours getting it from 1000+ messages down to zero. I was so proud. I vowed I’d never let myself get to that state again. But I didn’t have a system to keep it from happening again. So, of course, it did.

Aside from missing emails amidst the clutter, I also had the bad habit of looking through my inbox, failing to decide what to do with each message, and then leaving them there.

I knew from Getting Things Done that part of effective email management is deciding whether each message requires action or not. The GTD philosophy says that for any “actionable” task, there are three choices:

  1. Do it
  2. Defer it
  3. Delegate it

The problem was I didn’t know what to do with messages that needed to be deferred or delegated so I’d remember to follow up on them. Gmail doesn’t have a flag for follow-up like Outlook. It took a bit of research to find a solution, but here’s what I did to take control of my inbox.

Processing Your Inbox

In order to tag each email with the appropriate category, I created two labels: FOLLOWUP and HOLD. Then I went through my inbox like so:

Keep It or Delete It
Messages that didn’t require action were either saved or deleted. Ones I wanted to keep for reference got assigned a label and archived. Besides newsletters I’m subscribed to, I also kept and archived purchase receipts and confirmation emails for online accounts I’d created.

Do It
Anything that required action and would take two minutes or less, I did right away. If I needed the email for future reference, I assigned the appropriate label and archived it. Otherwise, it got deleted.

Defer It
Longer tasks that needed to be deferred for a later date got assigned the FOLLOWUP label and archived.

Delegate It
If the task needed to be delegated, once I did so, I tagged it with the HOLD label and archived it. Another use for this label is any email to which I responded and was awaiting the other person’s reply.

This process emptied my inbox within a few hours and I was tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. But archiving my emails made them dangerously “out of sight, out of mind.” I need a way to keep them “top-of-mind.”

Gmail places labels on its left sidebar, similar to folders in other email programs. The problem was both my FOLLOWUP and HOLD labels were going to disappear down the list. But I could force both labels to the top by adding an underscore (_) at the front, or numbering them, like so:

I also made use of Gmail’s multiple inbox feature by creating an inbox named ‘Follow Up’ and placing it right below my regular inbox. (I may eliminate this as I get into the habit of regularly following up with these email.)

What, you may ask, is the point, if all I’ve done is move my emails to another inbox where I can continue to overlook them. But the beauty of the FOLLOWUP label is that I know everything with that label requires an action. Now it’s simply a matter of setting aside a block of time to handle each one. Ideally, once I get caught up, maintaining the messages in my FOLLOWUP box shouldn’t be overly time-consuming.

Despite these safeguards, I’m still in danger of these being “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s been suggested that you add the next action step for each of these emails to your “To Do” list. Productivity apps like Producteev allow you to create a task by forwarding the email to your account, which also put its contents in the ‘Notes’ field. This lets you to assign a due date to each of these emails.

Organizing Your Chaos

When I worked at AT&T Yellow Pages, more than one manager commented on how neatly organized my desk was. That’s because I had a single task—to sell advertising—and it was easy to organize my workspace around that task.

But today, I have a myriad of job functions and on any given day I’m doing more than one at the same time. For some people, like my wife, organizing this type of chaos just comes naturally. For others such as myself, not so much. If, like me, you need to take your productivity up a notch (or several notches), I highly recommend Getting Things Done, by David Allen. It’s not a quick fix; rather, it’s learning a completely new skill—one that many of us could desperately use help with.

When it comes to “getting things done,” are you a zero or a hero? What have you done to improve your organizational skills and personal productivity? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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  • http://jelillie.wordpress.com JE Lillie

    Thanks for these practical steps. As a guy who is continually trying to “up” his organization out of the pit of chaos I need messages like this to keep me on track!

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      My pleasure. I needed to write this to kick my own butt.

  • Jenny C

    I have done the same kind of thing – I have a gmail folder labelled *To Do (*keeps it at the top). However I still tend not to look there often enough so I’ve become a big fan of the coloured labels on offer. Now, things I label *To Do have a solid, bright red label. If they need a quick response but will take time to do then they stay in the in box. The red label is a constant reminder. Specific clients also get their own colour, which makes them easier to find before archiving.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      I have the same problem. The additional inbox is helping … so far.

  • http://www.vulytrampolines.com Ben

    You can get notifications for pages though?

    Edit Page > Your Settings > top option.

    Email Notifications:
    Send notifications to ****@hotmail.com when people post to, comment on, or message your Page.

    We have a dummy account setup with an email of sales@domain.com, set as an admin of my companies facebook page, so whenever someone posts, it goes to the sales email, which is open pretty much all day everyday, so will always get answered quickly.

    My system for mail is filter major categories (bug tracking folder, job ads folder and “Processed”), moving all emails to “Processed” once I’ve done something with it, and never marking an item as unread.

    If I read an email at night and need to action it the next morning, I star/flag it in windows live mail/iphone app (which stars it in gmail), and then go through those ones the next day and either create issues in our project management system to follow up on.

    I receive between 20 and 30 emails a day in just general correspondence, and I never let the unread count stay above 0 after I’ve inspected my inbox at any given time. I have a complex where I cannot stand the notification icon being there. I will do work on my day off, just to get rid of the notification icon (though I disabled notifications on my iphones mail app! yes!). I also get between 10 and 30 bug tracking reports of new/updated/resolved issues from all my staff, and review all of the changes they make and comment on or make changes as they happen as well, and then leave it in the ether.

    My boss has something like 3200 unread emails. I don’t understand how he can not read emails, just to even mark them as read… I think its because he’s using Gmail, where you actually have to enter an email for it to be marked as read, whereas WLM lets you mark as read by clicking on it in the list (and it displays on the right).

    I’m sorted ;)

  • http://sagubanet.blogspot.com/ Lendo Simba

    very helpful for us which is always difficult to manage email. thank you