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Why you shouldnt start your year with a full email inbox

Published:Sunday | January 4, 2015 | 1:00 AM
Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Based on recent research, there's a good reason to be particular about the way you manage your email. Most people think its as easy as finding a single method and sticking to it, but that turns out to be a mistake. You need to change your techniques over time.

Professionals use a wide variety of methods, which explains why a few have empty inboxes at least once per day. Others, however, are stuck looking at thousands of recycled messages every day. Whats the best way, and why?, they quietly wonder, even as they pray that one day email will just go away, taking all their problems with it.

Of course, that's just wishful thinking. We don't realise that we must actively upgrade our methods to stay out of overwhelm. Here's why.

Failing Techniques

Most of us learned to manage email at a time when 10 messages per week signified a person of immense popularity. In the mid 1990s, there were only a handful of users compared with the billions who exist today. Many of us still use the scan and leave strategy of managing email: we look for urgent items, deal with them, and leave the rest behind for later. Also, we click to mark our read messages as unread, in the hope that doing so will draw our attention to important emails when we return after doing other tasks.

These methods get the job done for small numbers of email. At a glance we can see what we really want to know. How much work, time and effort does the email left behind represent?

Inevitably, however, things change. As you became more valuable to your organisation and attract more tasks, greater communication becomes a requirement. Also, the recession has left us short-staffed: you may be doing the work of more than one person. Add to that the impact of 24-7 mobile technology and its no wonder why you receive more than 100 messages per day, on average. (If your numbers aren't that high, just wait ... )

Once you start receiving a certain number of email messages per day, the scan and leave technique creates a big problem. Its like taking a few letters from your P.O. box, glancing at some of the envelopes, opening the most interesting ones to read the contents and resealing a select handful before returning them to the box. Its a crazy way to manage your mail, but there are good reasons why it fails when applied to email.

1. Its wasteful You force yourself to scan or read email messages more than once in order to determine the time demands they contain. Do that once or twice each day and you don't have a problem. However, for the scan and leave strategy to work, you have to make multiple visits as many as 50 per day according to some studies. That's a lot of scanning and reading which translates into you processing the same set of emails over and over again.

2. Its stressful Each email message kept in your inbox represents at least one small time obligation. Whenever you glance at your inbox with its hundreds (or thousands) of emails, you feel instantly burdened. Its because your mind makes a quick calculation: You wont complete the job of processing all your email until well after Easter. Even worse, the chances are high that some important message will slip through the cracks, only adding to your stress.

3. Its obscuring Following the scan and leave strategy means that the sum of your obligations is never well understood. As I mentioned before, your inbox stands out as a reflection of your future commitments because of the time demands your messages contain. When you face a great number of unprocessed emails, the mind can only create a fuzzy picture, leaving you vulnerable to mistakes. For example, when your boss asks you to commit to a new project lasting a few months at two days a week, you have no idea whether you actually have the time available or not. Your lack of clarity leaves you uncertain and you either over or under-commit.

simple solution

Here is a simple solution: treat your email inbox like a kitchen sink. The scan and leave strategy is similar to washing one plate or spoon and leaving the rest for later. Instead, treat your sink and your inbox as points of triage, or temporary storage, not permanent locations in which anyone can leave stuff indefinitely.

When you treat your inbox badly, there's no smell ... for a while. Managing email so well that your inbox gets emptied regularly is a mark of professional competence in which you don't have to make repeated excuses to others. Learn this new habit and give a gift to yourself: a way to gain a head-start on the New Year.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. Email: