How to Process Email Like a Ninja

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Email – the digital battlefield of the 21st century workforce. For many people, email is their work. And thanks to smart phones, that work now travels with us wherever and whenever we go.

Is this good? In many respects, yeah. It’s nice to be able to communicate with others while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or brushing your teeth (if you’re an exceptionally good one-handed typer), but the constant rush of email into our lives can create a level of anxiety and digital clutter that makes a girl long for the good old days of snail mail.

If you’re like I was a few years ago, you tend to use your email’s inbox as a de facto to-do list. (Or, more likely, a cross between “to-do” and “I don’t know what to-do with this” list.) The emails hanging around in my inbox were often more random than the Sunday night crowd at a karaoke bar – birthday evites sidled up next to department meeting reminders, emails from concerned parents brushed shoulders with confirmations of my most recent purchases on Amazon, and “How’s your life?”s from friends mingled with emails from my husband asking what the plumber said. All of these emails were important in their own way, and they all hung out in my inbox because I was afraid if I put them elsewhere, I’d lose them.

I tried flagging the “most important” emails, but then I had so many flags I stopped being able to see them all, so I was back where a started – a motley crew of email to-dos that never grew smaller.

Then I read a blog post on ZenHabits about processing your inbox to zero. Every single day. This was fascinating to me… and scary. If I didn’t set my eyes on all those to-dos every day, where would they go?

The answer? Folders. Simple folders.

But before I get too deep into talking about folders (and believe me, I love talking about folders!), let me chat about the idea of processing email. Processing just means sorting. You go through your inbox and process it. You don’t need to respond or do something based on each email, especially not right away.

I have two hard and fast rules when processing:

1) Follow the 2-minute rule. If it will take less than 2 minutes to complete the action related to the email (i.e. write a reply, update a document, refill the pen supply in the workroom, etc.), do it now. If it will take longer than two minutes, process the email to complete the action later.

2) Calendar time-sensitive info immediately! If the email involves, say, a reminder that you have a 2pm meeting with your boss on Thursday, put that appointment on your calendar (along with any pertinent info related to it, such as the room number and “Bring proposal for Smith Project”). Then delete the email or file it, depending on your style. What you don’t want to do (and what most of us do) is let it hang around in your inbox until Thursday, using up bits of our valuable brain energy every time we see it, have to remember what it is, and tell ourselves, “I need to do that on Thursday.” Every time you think like this it prevents you from using your brain to complete actions you could actually be doing now. Calendar it. Done.

Okay, now that we’ve got the rules out of the way, let’s talk folders!

I love making folders on email. It’s so much easier than making paper folders – you can easily rename, remove, and re-order them to suit your needs. You really only need FIVE folders to organize your email. Don’t believe me? Read on, oh ye of little faith:

Folder #1) ACTION – this is what most folks consider the “To Do” list. This is where you put anything that needs your next immediate action. Let me repeat the words next immediate. Don’t let stuff hang out in here that doesn’t need relatively swift action. If an email relates to a seminar at which you are presenting in six months, it’s probably not your next immediate action. (That seminar email will go somewhere else, hang with me.) This list should be as short as it possibly can be, but should completely capture the active energy of all your present work. It is what you’re doing today or in the next few days. If you start to let this list get flabby, you are back to your karaoke-crowd inbox problem.

Folder #2) REFERENCE – this is where you put stuff to which you want to refer later. Let me repeat the word refer. The emails in this folder are like a library; they should not require action. This folder will contain quite a few subfolders (okay, you got me, you really do need more than five folders, but these are subfolders! Different!), depending on the areas of reference you need in your life. For instance, my reference folder contains subfolders like: Bills, Kids, Moms Group, Less LLC, Vacation, etc. And some of those subfolders even have subfolders – ah, beautiful!

Folder #3) SOMEDAY MAYBE – I love this folder. This is where I put ideas I might want to act on later, but I’m not sure yet. For example, one of the emails in my SOMEDAY MAYBE folder right now is from a competing cell phone company offering me a deal to switch. Another is from a friend containing information about how to create a compost pile.

Folder #4) WAITING FOR – This is a biggie. I used to email people, forget I’d emailed them, and later wonder, “Hey! Didn’t I send an email to so-and-so a few months ago asking for such-and-such? They never got back to me!” (Note: So-and-so needs to read this blog post!) This is where you put emails that are waiting for a response from others. For example, right now this folder contains, among others, an email regarding a stipend I am waiting to receive. (Tip: It’s a good idea to cc yourself when you send emails that you know will go in Waiting For. Then you can just move them into this folder right away without having to go to sent mail to get them.)

Folder #5) TICKLER – I will do an entire blog post dedicated to the Tickler system later, but for now, think of TICKLER as MUST DO LATER. This is different from Someday/Maybe and the Reference folders. Someday/Maybes don’t really need to get done. References are just a library of potentially useful material. Ticklers are time-sensitive future items. You need to do something about them, but you don’t need to do it now. Remember that email about the seminar you need to prep for but doesn’t happen for six more months? That baby goes here. If your email system is awesome (like my husband’s) you probably have built-in Tickler folders with titles like “This Week” and “Next Week” and your system automatically moves them as time passes. Use those. If you don’t, you can make your own, or, depending on the amount of email you will store here, just put all Tickler items in the folder together and manually move them to ACTION as necessary.

The key to making this system work is regularly reviewing these folders. If you don’t do this, you will revert back to your inbox as a catch-all and you will waste valuable brain energy scanning your inbox and re-remembering what stuff is and what you need to do about it.

On a daily basis, here is how I check my email:

1) PROCESS INBOX – do 2-minute stuff, calendar items, process the rest

2) ACTION – What do I need to do now? Do it!

3) TICKLER – What’s coming up? Does any of this need to be moved to ACTION?

4) WAITING FOR – Who am I waiting to hear from? Should I follow-up?

About once a week, I check SOMEDAY MAYBE. I ask myself: Is any of this becoming ACTION? Should something be moved to TICKLER or REFERENCE? Should it be deleted? Or should it just hang out and dream?

At least once a year, review the REFERENCE folders. Decide if you still need all the subfolders. Delete obsolete ones, add new, or combine to make your reference system work better for you. Since it’s digital, you really can’t have too many subfolders here. You just want to make sure they still work for you.

That’s it! Your email is organized, your inbox is always zero, and you are an official email ninja. Hi-ya!

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2 Responses

  1. My husband has organized his email this way for years! He’s a big proponent of getting that inbox to zero everyday, and he loves a folder system, for both personal and work emails. Thanks for sharing a great breakdown Rose!

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