Get Good at Processing Your Inbox

By Leo Babauta

For many people (including me), email is the main inbox. It’s where new information, requests, tasks, calendar items and more come in.

If this is where things come in, it’s good to learn how to efficiently take things out of the inbox and put them in their appropriate bucket. You don’t want to spend hours on email if you have more important tasks to work on, but you also don’t want important information/tasks to be sitting in a pile of other stuff, forgotten about.

A few simple skills will help you process email well, and then get out of email to do better things. Note: These skills work for other inboxes, like a paper inbox tray, or inboxes in other messaging systems like Facebook messages or the like. All inboxes are pretty much the same.

So how do you process an inbox?

  1. Top down. Instead of randomly jumping around and opening emails (or other messages, papers), start at the top, and methodically and quickly work your way down. Now, there are exceptions, of course — if you see an absolutely urgent message that needs to be dealt with this moment, you can jump to the middle and open that and deal with it. But in general, it’s best just to plow through the email, because if you do, all important messages will be dealt with, in short order.
  2. Deal with each email quickly. Don’t just read it and move on. Decide what needs to be done. Is it a quick reply? Do that now, then archive the email. Is it a longer reply? If you don’t have time for that now, star or flag the email (and archive it), and put it in your to-do list to do later. Is it a quick task? Do that now if it’s just 1-2 minutes, then reply and archive. Is there a calendar item (appointment, meeting, recurring task) in the email? Put it in the calendar immediately. If there’s info sitting in the email you might need later, put it in the appropriate bucket. If you don’t need the email, archive or delete. With practice, you can get good at doing these things quickly.
  3. Archive or delete, then move on. Each of the above actions should result in the email being archived or deleted, so it’s no longer in your inbox. Get the email out of the inbox, then move to the next item. In Gmail, active the Auto-advance function in Labs (in the Settings), so that when you archive or delete a message, Gmail automatically shows you the next message (rather than returning you to your inbox), which makes it easier to process all your email quickly.
  4. Don’t feel the need to get to the bottom. You don’t need to get to empty. Yes, this is a nice feeling, when you clear out your inbox, but you’ll find that developing the need to get to empty is counterproductive — because then when new emails come in, you get anxious and want to clear out the inbox again, and this keeps repeating throughout the day. Instead, get as much processed as you can, then get out. I like to leave a few in the inbox just so I develop the mental habit of not caring about an empty inbox.
  5. If your inbox is full of thousands of emails, temporarily move them out. You’re not going to be able to process them all at once, but that shouldn’t stop you from working your way through the most recent ones. So create a folder or label called “Soon” and move your thousands of emails from your inbox to this folder. You can leave 20 or so recent ones that you need to deal with now, but otherwise clear everything out. Now focus on what’s in you inbox now, and set aside 10-15 minutes each day to process through the “Soon” folder. You’ll get to everything eventually, but for now, put them out of sight.
  6. Don’t live in the inbox. Try to just process email for 10-15 minutes, then get out to do something more important. Don’t continually check email, because that puts your time at the mercy of whatever requests are coming in. Instead, check email mindfully, at times when you’re not working on something important. You can schedule those times (8a, 10a, 12p, 2p and 4p, for example, or just 8a and 2p) or you can just check as needed, as long as that’s not too often.