Daring to dream of an empty (or nearly so) in-box

Since e-mail became a fixture in our professional and personal lives, many academic researchers have investigated the complex mix of feelings brought on by the technology.

We feel guilty about being late in responding, about our in-boxes being disorganized, about the tens of thousands of unread messages that we?re sure we?ll never get to. What is it about e-mail that consumes us ? that invades every corner of our personal space, demands ever more sophisticated methods of organization and makes us wish for extra hours in the day to deal with the deluge? More important, how can we overcome it?

In the last few weeks, I set about finding a cure for e-mail anxiety. It was not the first time I?d done so; I?ve been looking for better ways to handle my mail since shortly after logging in to my first in-box.

Over the years, I?ve discovered many methods that worked for a while, but never permanently. For a while, I set up elaborate filters meant to automatically categorize every incoming message according to who sent it. Another time, I instituted a complicated system of color-coded labels aimed at getting me to understand which e-mail messages I had to respond to, which I had to save and which I could ignore.

But eventually every finely honed trick to tame my mail would collapse, and I?d backslide into a messy, undisciplined in-box. So in my search for a new way to deal with e-mail, I followed one guiding principle: Keep it simple. Any method that made too many demands on my time or my brain was bound to fail.

Fortunately, after much experimentation with various experts? many tips, I?ve found something that works. Here are the basic rules:

LIMIT YOUR TIME WITH IT ? Turn off all auto-notifications that alert you to incoming mail, and if you must check mail while you?re on the go, keep it to a minimum. Here?s a good guideline that worked for me: Don?t dip into your in-box more than three times an hour. It?s unlikely that any message is so urgent that it can?t wait 20 minutes for your response ? if it were, the sender would call, send an instant message or find some other way to reach you.

CLEAR OUT YOUR IN-BOX ? Set aside an hour or two to respond to every important message that has dogged you in the last couple months (anything older than that is too ancient to bother with). Next, move everything else into a new folder called Archive ? this will be your storehouse of old mail.

Your in-box should now be empty. Think of this as its optimal state ? your goal, from now on, will be to keep this space as pristine as possible, either empty or nearly so. To realize that goal, live by this precept: Whenever you receive a new message, do something with it. Don?t read your e-mail and then just let it sit there ? that?s a recipe for chaos.

This isn?t always so easy. A day?s worth of mail demands a variety of complex actions, and the daunting task of figuring out how to respond to each message is probably what made your in-box untidy in the first place.

That?s where the next steps come in ? an algorithm for dealing with incoming e-mail messages. For each new one you receive, take one of the following actions:

ARCHIVE IT ? Most e-mail messages require no action or response on your part ? messages from Facebook letting you know that an old college pal has commented on your wall, for instance.? Skim through these missives (or leave them unread), then shoot them into your archive and forget them.

RESPOND TO IT ? If the e-mail message calls for an easy answer, send it. Say a colleague wants to know if you?re up for dinner at his place on Saturday, or your boss wants to praise you for a job well done. Shoot back a quick response ? ?Yes!? or ?Thanks!? ? and then push the original message into your archive. The productivity guru and ?Getting Things Done? author David Allen has a rule of thumb that comes in handy here: If responding is going to take two minutes or less, you?re better off doing it now than procrastinating.

FORWARD IT ? If the message is better handled by someone else ? your boss, your sister, anyone but you ? send it off to that person, then archive it.

HOLD IT FOR LATER ? This is the trickiest option. Some e-mail messages demand complicated answers. You don?t really want to dine with your colleague, but coming up with an excuse will take longer than two minutes. Other messages simply require information not yet available. Your friend wants to know if you?re up for watching the game on Sunday, but you?ve got to check with your spouse first.

You can leave these messages in your in-box with a promise to come back to them soon. (Depending on the mail program you use, you might want to set a reminder or a flag to make it stand out ? in Microsoft Outlook, you can click the flag icon, or in Google?s Gmail, the star.)

Be careful to avoid letting many such messages pile up. Carve out a short amount of time ? perhaps 15 to 30 minutes at the end of the day ? to respond to all flagged e-mail. Remember, your goal is to keep your in-box empty. Each message sitting there should serve as a stark, visible reminder of your undisciplined ways.

Notice that my system doesn?t include any complex method for organizing e-mail ? I don?t categorize my messages into folders by sender, subject matter, date or any other scheme. That way lies distraction.

E-mail isn?t a test of your skills at making things look pretty; indeed, making things look pretty will only take time away from your goal of actually getting through your mail. Most modern e-mail programs include search engines that are powerful enough to find any message you need without the aid of a taxonomy.

Note, too, that this system is far from new. It was inspired by Allen?s ideas, and it?s been proselytized, in various forms, by a host of efficiency experts and people who have spent a lot of time wrestling with e-mail.

In particular, I relied partly on a series of essays and lectures put together by Merlin Mann, proprietor of the Web site 43 Folders, which aims to help you get a handle on how much attention you focus on unrewarding tasks, like e-mail.

It wasn?t easy for me to curb my time in my in-box. E-mail was like a drug, and I needed a constant fix. That?s a good sign you need help.

?People arrive at this because they?re beuning overwhelmed,? Mann said. ?They feel like the train is going off the rails.? He was careful to add that much of what troubles people about modern life goes beyond e-mail ? but you can think of fixing your in-box as a private victory for modern professionals. Once you deal with your e-mail, you?ll be able to tackle stuff that really matters.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Syndicate