14 ways to put your inbox on a diet

Picture of Matthew Stibbe
Posted by Matthew Stibbe

So much for the paperless office: either you’ve got an email inbox that each day brings fresh hell in the form of hundreds of messages, or you’ve got an in-tray brim-full of paper – or, if you’re particularly unlucky, you’ve got both.

If you want to de-clutter, you may need to put aside a little time. But you can use the tips below to speed up the process and set up some guidelines to keep your inbox from overflowing again:

  1. Get a virtual PA. Hire a virtual assistant from a service such as the UK’s Blue Umbrella to get back on top of things. They should be able to create a ‘system’ for you, too. Or steal this tip from Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality: his PA aggregates correspondence and sends him a four-part memo every day.
  2. Use collaboration software. Keep weighty project documents and designs on a wiki or in Dropbox.
  3. Organise your email. First tackle the backlog. Set up an ‘old’ box and go through it in chunks, first by date, then sender, suggests Bob Hallewell at Expert Messaging. Then set up a system of folders and files, and automatically route mail to the right place. Apply the 4 Ds: delegate it; do it (if it takes under two minutes) delegate it; or defer it and convert it into a task.
  4. Move messages along: Taskforce or ActiveInbox can help you prioritise and quickly turn messages into tasks.
  5. Encourage good behaviour: You can use your signoff and out of office autoresponders to lay down ground rules about how you use email. Adopt company-wide practices to discourage over-emailing: some companies allocate a certain number of ‘stamps’ to senders while Nielsen media went as far as to disable the ‘reply all’ function on company email.
  6. Unsubscribe from things you never read. Cull your inbox/intray regularly.
  7. Consolidate networks: use tools such as Buffer to centralise your social media activity. Use your social network to filter which blogs you read.
  8. Read faster: use RSVP software such as Spreeder to improve your speed-reading.
  9. Use the phone instead: the more email you send, the more you receive. Talk to people instead.
  10. File: de-cluttering your paperwork offers good mental downtime.
  11. Shred regularly.
  12. Try the ‘one touch’ rule: only allow yourself to ‘touch’ a piece of correspondence once before acting upon it (either by filing, delegating, binning). If you can’t remember, initialise it every time you look at it.
  13. Move it online: Move as much as possible online. For example, you can do expense claims and time-off requests online in Turbine. You can store valuable documents in the cloud, too, with SME-focused options such as Mozy.
  14. Encourage better email etiquette to keep your inbox down.
  15. If all else fails… Declare email bankruptcy and start with a clean slate.

How to choose an agency for your new website