As TED’s UX Architect, I like my inbox the same way I like my designs: simple, orderly, and communicating clearly what to do next. Many people have no problem with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of unread messages in their inbox; if that’s you, you can stop reading now. But if you’re like me, unread email gives you stress — and it pretty much ensures important things will fall through the cracks.
Here’s how I keep my inbox at (or near) empty at all times. Be forewarned: this plan isn’t easy, but it works. I’ve been doing it for years with success, and I’ve helped others — in fact, some on TED’s tech team — do the same.
Step 1: Accept that your future self won’t have any more time than your current self.
I’ve noticed a trend among people with full inboxes: they don’t deal with emails as they arrive because they believe that, at some point in the near future, they’ll have time to be able to focus on each message and take appropriate action. Here’s the hard truth: the level of busy you feel right now? You’re likely to feel that next week, next month and next year. If you start from the premise that this mythical free-time unicorn doesn’t exist, you’ll find it a lot easier to make decisions as emails arrive rather than put them off for the future.
Step 2: Get a clean start.
There are two ways to do this, as I see it:
- Set aside a chunk of time and get caught up. Depending on how far behind you are, you’re going to need some time. And the time isn’t just going to appear — you need to schedule it. Set up a two-hour meeting for yourself during the day or dedicate an evening or a weekend to sit down and go through it all, the goal being to eliminate every email in your inbox. (Tips on that below.) Instead of playing Candy Crush, open your email app and play Email Crush.
- Go nuclear. You need to start somewhere, and if you’re so far behind that there’s no hope of catching up, I recommend an unthinkable approach. If you’ve got the guts, delete everything in your inbox right now. Next, send a generic email to anyone in your address book you deem important — bcc’ing the group, of course! — saying, “Hey, I just had some email issues. If you’re waiting for a response from me on…