When I heard "Clean Out Your Inbox Week" was the last working week of January, I wondered why it was necessary to dedicate a whole week to one task. But then I saw the 1,012 emails I had yet to delete in my own inbox.
"A full inbox can be toxic to you," said Marsha Egan, a workplace productivity coach who created Clean Out Your Inbox Week five years ago.. "If you turn on your computer and see 300 items in your inbox, it's an immediate source of stress to start your day. It tells you what you're not going to get done instead of what you are going to get done."
"You're basing your organization by what people use in their subject line," she said. "This means you're wasting time guessing what's in the emails. Then you see one worthy of your time, and you find yourself clicking on to links, and going off task, so you're tempted by your clutter. And that clutter can be costly."
The only way we can really be on top of things, said Egan, is to get that inbox to zero every day before you leave the office.
"Think of the example of how we tell kids they can't go to bed until they put all the toys in the toy box," she said. "You can't leave the office until you've cleaned out your inbox. No excuses."
And the key to getting this done without feeling overwhelmed is learning to sort efficiently, Egan said.
"Think of how you sort your regular mail — you take it out of your mailbox and then you stand over the trash and you prioritize," she said. "You don't put anything back in your mailbox. The magazines go one place. The invitations go somewhere else. The bills have their own place. If you change the view of your inbox as a delivery mechanism that needs to be cleaned, that can help."
Here are Egan's tips to detoxing your inbox.
Create action folders. "We recommend people create folders labeled 'Action A' or 'Action B,' and anything requiring your action gets dragged and dropped into those folders. Action A is for the things that need your immediate attention and ACTION B is for things that can wait a couple of weeks."
Set a reminder. "As soon as you drag an item into an action folder, go to your calendar and set yourself a reminder of when to address it. This will ensure you don't ignore things for weeks and let the emails start to pile up."
Create reference folders. But what about the emails that don't require any action from you? "All your other folders should be reference folders — correspondents, contracts, directions, whatever you deem is important to save should go in your other folders. A best practice is to have broad headings and not sub-folders."
Limit your email viewings. "The average business person should only view their inbox five times a day," she said. "Timothy Ferris, who wrote 'The 4-Hour Work Week', checks his email twice a day and he's a gazillionaire. Check your email in the longest interval you can possibly stand. Morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon and 15 minutes before you close for the day. That allows you to sort it."
Don't give up. "If you do this and then don't change your habits, it's like having liposuction and not changing your eating habits," she said. "You need to focus on your new way of doing things for about a month and then it becomes second nature. The average person is getting 100 or more emails a day and it's not going down, so being able to process and manage your email is a (good) career strategy."