In a recent post, we talked about the tension that “piles” create.

We acknowledged that, for many of us, processing inputs (physical, email, text messages, etc.) were a necessary part of the work that we do.

When we see all those emails in our inbox, we start to freak out because we don’t know what unfinished tasks are buried in those mounds of digital verbiage.

We have a choice to make.  Do we do what it takes to tame the beast, or surrender to chaos and spend our days in apathetic wandering and frequent apologies for unfulfilled promises? :)  The way I framed this question makes it seem obvious which one we SHOULD choose…but it’s not easy! The information never stops flowing.  In fact, you may have gotten multiple emails while reading this blog post.  Me, too.

We’re not talking about a magic solution that ends the problem once and for all.  We’re talking about owning the fact that input processing is something we will always do and we must continually fine-tune our approach.

I acknowledge that our lives and our individual needs are all very different. I don’t presume to know what’s best for you.  But here are a few thoughts that help me in this area.

How to control your inbox and get to zero:

1- Begin to view your Inbox as a front door, not an attic. 

The inbox is not for long term storage.  It’s temporary.  Very temporary.  It’s not where anything should live, it’s just the door that things go through to get to where they live.  When things are in your inbox, they are standing at your front door waiting to be let in. They are homeless. :) Zero is the norm.  Zero means my system is under control.  Anything more means I have work to do to get my system under control. (Remember, we’re not talking about DOING everything that the emails reference, but just putting them into the appropriate places in our system…however simple or complicated.)

2- Tighten up the front door.

When we really try to gain control of our front door, we realize that there is too much to manage.  So, it’s beneficial to get very honest about all of your newsletters, updates, blogs, and coupon notifications.  There are some blogs that help me tremendously, and I keep following them.  But, I often ask myself, “In light of my current load, what has to go?”

“But what if I really miss getting those updates?”

You may find that you don’t miss them at all.  But if you do, you can always add them back later.  If you forget, it probably wasn’t that important.

Oh yeah…. you may have to ask that friend to stop forwarding all those political/religious/conspiracy messages that we all know and love. ;)

You can also adjust your email notification settings on social networks.  You can determine how often Twitter & Facebook send you emails.  Take advantage of that.

Limiting what you allow in the front door will make your organizing work much easier.

3- Determine how you will manage tasks and appointments.

You probably already have some kind of system that you use (however complicated or simple).  Some love to have detailed spreadsheets and project management charts, while others are happy with a 3 x 5 card and a pen.  It doesn’t matter what you use.  Whatever works for you is obviously fine, but pick something that you will actually use.  You have to have some form of calendar to keep up with appointments and things you have to do.  It’s important to have this in place, because this is what you will actually work from.  This will be the place that you put the “triggers” that remind you of the stuff you have to do and when to do it (more on triggers below).

4- Process as soon as practical.

Notice I said “as soon as practical”, not “as possible”.  I’m not recommending that you be a freak about it.  It’s no fun when your inbox totally determines your schedule.  It’s a great servant, but a horrible master.  You have to figure out what rhythms work for you, but sooner is better than later.  Remember, this information is homeless until you process it.)  Pick a time to process your inboxes.  Some people have to keep email open all day due to the nature of their work.  Others only check it once or twice a day.  You decide.  Most people will recommend that you process daily, which is what I do.  If you let too much time pass, the “pile” will grow and you will begin to feel the fear creep in again.

5- When you process, ask yourself the following questions:

What is it?

What do I need to do about it?

When do I need to do it? 

All emails are not equal.

Some contain requests from friends or co-workers.  Some have directions to a restaurant that you are going to next week.  Some contain information that you need to have access to sometime in the future.  You have to determine what it is and what action it requires.  (Many people recommend that if the task takes less than 2 minutes, go ahead and do it right then, rather than planning for the future.)

6- Put the triggers in the right places.

When you decide what it is and what it requires, you have to determine how you will remind yourself to do it when it’s time to do it.

Your co-worker asks you to send them a copy of the graphic you created?  Send it now!  It will definitely take less than 2 minutes.

Your friend sent you directions to Chipotle for lunch next Wednesday?  On your calendar, on Wednesday, put “Archive” (if you are going to open the email on that day), or print the directions and put them in your “C” hanging file and put “C file” on your calendar (or some other variation that works for your system.)  This way, you have something that will trigger you to remember where the directions are located.  You can archive the email, and forget about it.  You don’t have to look at it over and over again in your inbox until next Wednesday.

Another email reminds you that you need to call John about that project you started?  Decide when you will call him, and write/type “Call John RE: that project” in your calendar.

You get the picture.  The point is that you need to empty out your inbox….not get rid of the responsibilities.  When you are looking up and down the inbox list, it feels like everything is equally urgent and important.  It isn’t.  Some things won’t require action for a month, and others are for today.  Some will take 3 hours and some will take 30 seconds.  Processing gets everything in it’s proper place and time.  Then you can take action!

7- Archive or delete.

Once you’ve put your triggers where they belong, you can either archive or delete.  If it’s trash, delete it.  If you might possible need it at any point in the future, just archive it.  I realize that all operating systems are NOT created equally.  Search functions vary from software to software and system to system.  If you have a great search function, don’t create lots of folders.  It takes too much time.  Just archive and search for it when you need it.  Trying to determine how to organize files can be a huge time-waster and brain drain.  You can search by subject, who it’s from, words in the text, etc.  You have access to all the information at anytime.  It just lives in a different place…your archives instead of your inbox.  No big deal when it comes to accessibility, but a HUGE deal to your feeling of control and peace.

So, that’s a little bit about how I process my inboxes.  It works for me.  My hope is that it helps you, as well.

Whatever you do…do something!  Don’t let that monstrous pile of emails drain the life from you!