For years, my approach to email was like slaying a hydra. For every email I deleted, two more landed in my inbox.
Part of the problem, I knew, was the nature of my work. My team stands between two major organizations within my company, making collaboration crucial, however inefficient it was in practice. So not only did I put up with this mess, I was actually complicit in letting it worsen. I saved everything. I thought most messages addressed directly to me needed my response. I was wrong.
Looking back, I didn't have the discipline and discernment to really manage my email habits. The system I use now isn’t a product of my own invention. My best friend works for a major consulting firm, and I was grateful when he sketched out the rough strategy his firm shares with consultants to help them manage their own unruly inboxes. The technique comes with all the beauty and simplicity you'd expect from a firm charging seven figures per engagement—and it relies on a folder system you can tally on one hand.
The biggest mistake, in my experience, is creating folders based on topics. Emails, like meetings, rarely stay on track.
Where do you file an important update that covers two unrelated projects? What do you do with that same email if it requires a response?
The second mistake I’ve seen, and personally committed, is trying to use an inbox as a to-do list. There simply aren't enough hours in the workday to respond to the emails that pile up there. Over time, precisely because of the way I was "organizing" my inbox, emails that I should've responded to got pushed further and further down, and were eventually forgotten.
The system that saved my sanity requires only five folders:
- Inbox: the inbox is a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception to this rule is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response.
- Today: Everything that requires a response today.
- This Week: Everything that requires a response before the end of the week.
- This Month/Quarter: – Everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you many need a monthly folder. Others can operate on a quarterly basis.
- FYI: Most items I receive are informational. If I think I may need to reference an email again, I'll save it to this folder.
Email will quickly become your master if you don’t take charge. So once you embrace this system, you need to adhere to it mercilessly—there are no half measures. We tend to get more lax about newly adopted habits as their newness rubs off. But I’ve actually gotten better over time at sticking to my five-folder rule. I’m ruthless about deleting emails that don’t require my attention. Here are five tips that make the system more effective.
First, I keep an actual to-do list. Occasionally I’ll add items to that list based on the content of an email that didn’t require a response. For example, if an email thread results in deciding that we need to schedule a meeting, I'll make a note to prep my boss with some information from those emails—but I'll delete them once I've finished that prep session.
Second, don’t exaggerate your own importance. Too many people want to have a say in too many things. We all have leadership aspirations—and that's generally a good thing. One way to grow your influence is indeed by taking on more responsibility. But don’t confuse having an opinion with leadership, or mounting email volume with weightier job duties. If you don’t need to respond, put it in the "FYI" folder or delete it—it's one or the other. And if you stay on "cc," you’ll get the latest thread when everyone responds, so there's no need to worry.
Third, don’t exaggerate the importance of others. A lot of people want responses today. I’m one of them. But I've learned that I don’t always need or deserve a response today. This is especially true if you have obligations that directly impact customers or your company's financial health. Don’t put emails in the "Today" folder that don’t belong there; if it’s in the "Today" folder you have to respond to it that day, no exceptions.
My rule is simple: If my wife asked me to come home early and I was willing to leave emails in the "Today" folder, that doesn't mean I need to blast through them once I get home—it means those emails didn’t belong in that folder to begin with. I try and limit "Today" emails to messages involving customers, my boss, and urgent projects.
Fourth, you can work out of multiple folders simultaneously. Try to keep the "Today" folder small, for obvious reasons. If it’s empty and you’ve got time to address longer-term emails, dive into the "This Week" folder. I typically spend my Friday mornings doing "This Week" emails. If I don’t have all the information I need, I may begin my response but save it as a draft, and hold off sending it until I'm all squared away.
Finally, if your work is project-based, you can create this five-folder system for each project. You may have two or three projects running at a time, and technically wind up with 10 to 15 total folders as a result—but the system still holds. After the project is complete, archive the entire structure.
Like every new work habit, and especially those involving personal organization, this one may feel unnatural at first. I found it needed some getting used to. Soon after I switched to this method, I was still stressed out because I felt like I was missing something. In reality, though, everything was completed, and I gradually began to see that. It turned out that I'd gotten used to feeling the burden of email and was confusing it with productivity. Armed with just five folders, those days are over.