Keeping Your Inbox Empty!

Take control of your e-mail inbox through commitment, pencil, and paper.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #19

Today's topic is dealing with too much incoming e-mail. Jim writes:

"You have covered e-mail backlogs as well as templates and macros, but I have yet another e-mail question. How can I best handle the glut of incoming e-mails I get every day?
I have spam filters galore and am still overwhelmed by e-mail from coworkers, friends, lists with useful information, etc.  Usually I just end up archiving the messages meaning to go back to them and never get around to doing it.  This means that about one day a month is wasted on sorting through my archive when it piles up to the point I have to go through it or risk being buried in electronic garbage.
Please help!"

The quick and dirty tip is to empty your inbox and keep it empty by separating e-mail scanning and planning from action. Use the technique recommended by Mark Forster, time management guru.

Jim, I feel your pain, more than you know. I've used e-mail since seventh grade and had an empty inbox exactly twice. It was bliss, pure Nirvana. I stared at the screen with a goofy smile, thrilled that I'd handled everything. Fifteen seconds later, a talking paperclip proudly informed me ... that I had more mail. So much for peace.

At least the big e-mail problem used to be spam. We could hit delete and it was just gone (which reminds me, I still have to respond to that deposed Nigerian Prince). We complained bitterly about what a hassle it was to hit delete, never suspecting that spam would be dwarfed by the real problem: real e-mail. The more serious problem is the real e-mails. They require actual thought and time. I have 193 messages in my inbox this morning. At 1.5 minutes apiece, that's over 5  hours... a day!

There's a way to cope, but take heed, intrepid adventurer: the way is fraught with peril. You must be strong of will and pure of heart. If you are ready to travel the six-fold path to e-mail inbox freedom, take a deep breath and we shall begin.

Step 1: Admit and Commit. Turn to the person next to you, look deeply into their eyes, and repeat after me. "I," (state your name), "am an e-mail victim. My backlog increases daily, and I willfully deceive myself into believing I'll manage it. The truth is, I just can't cope." Now take a deep breath. "Starting today, I commit to having an empty inbox when I leave work, even if I have to reply to Bernice in sentences of two syllables or less." Mentally, commit to an empty inbox. Commit... Commit... Excellent! Are you as ready to be committed as I am? Good!

Step 2: Embody perfection. Go to your e-mail program. Create a folder called "Backlog." Go to your inbox. Select everything. Drag it all to the "Backlog" folder. As you watch the messages vanishing from your inbox, take a deep breath and let it out. When your inbox is completely empty, smile a goofy smile and be thrilled that you've handled everything.

Step 3: Surrender to a higher power. That would be ... a pencil and paper. Get out a pad of paper and a pen or pencil. No, you can't type this. It must be hand-written. Sharpen the pencil. Take a deep breath.



About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.