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Should You Declare Email Bankruptcy?

Should You Declare Email Bankruptcy?
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BY KITT WALSH

I am not a captain of industry nor beloved of millions, yet my Inbox resembled the Long Island Expressway, at rush hour, when there is a traffic accident blocking all lanes. My Inbox registered 9,999 messages and that’s only because the counter quit at that number. I always assumed that I was going to get to read, if not respond to them all, but I never found the time and the next thing I knew, emails were lost in the stack as surely as any needle in that proverbial hay. I was a candidate for “email bankruptcy”.

According to a definition by Wikipedia: “Email bankruptcy is a term used to explain a decision to delete all emails older than a certain date, due to an overwhelming volume of messages.

Sounds easy, eh?

It’s not, but if you have more than 500 messages in your Inbox or have recently been asked the question, “Didn’t you get my email?” you should give email bankruptcy a shot.

Here’s how to do it:

Cop to the problem: You don’t have enough time to open much less read and absorb all those emails. The hurrieder you go, the behinder you get. Admit to yourself that the time has come to declare surrender. It is the first step on the road to organizing your online life better.

Switch off: Go into your email program and then go offline right away, else you’ll be distracted by new incoming messages while you are dealing with old ones. You’ll only need about an hour to finish bankrupting yourself.

Figure out who is who: Sort all your emails by name (click on the “From” field to do this) and decide who is really important to you: your spouse, kids, grandchildren, best friend, charity board members, or even your boss or co-workers (though I am hoping you have a separate email account for business stuff.) Pick out the most recent two or three from each VIP and answer those. Don’t do more than 10 messages all together and don’t spend more than 30 minutes doing this chore. On the 31st minute, quit. (You are learning discipline, Grasshopper.)

Make a new “Done” folder: Or use the pre-existing Archive folder in your email software. Everything that isn’t deleted will go into this folder after you have done with the message whatever needs doing. What might that be? There are only so many options:

  • Delete the messages: You can hold the shift key down and delete a whole string at one time (or you can make the action you take to “unsubscribe” to about 20 of those cooking-related blogs to which you are addicted. My personal monkey-on-the-back is travel blogs. I keep thinking the info they contain will never go out of style. That is true, but I can always do an internet search to find what I need to know about Bora Bora later and ditch all the Bora Bora emails I’ve been saving.)
  • Do something: If you can take immediate action (within 5 minutes) and do whatever needs doing with the emails, make it so. Then move the message to the “Done” folder.
  • Pass it off: If you can delegate the task required by the email, forward it to another, with a short note in the subject line, “Can you please take care of this?”
  • Put it off: This is your “To-Do” pile and should only have things in it that can’t be done right away and that you personally wish to handle. Keep the To-Do file handy and take action on the items as soon as possible. Move to “Done” when you’ve finished the task. Be careful, though, this is a slippery slope. My file would include 1,000 articles I wished to read if I let it, so I leave those in my Inbox, read them by day’s end, and then delete or archive them.

Don’t try to read all your unread messages: You’ll spend you life trying. If someone really needs an answer from you, they will get back to you.

Admire the emptiness: Some experts say you should move all your Inbox messages to your “Done” file first and deal with them from there, so you can see what an empty Inbox looks like.

Start with a clean slate daily: The object of the game is to deal with all messages going forward by the end of each day.

Use email “rules”: In Apple Mail, these are found in “Preferences”, in Gmail they are under “Settings”. What the rules let you do is automatically file low-priority emails (like newsletters you subscribe to or Amazon receipts to a “Solicited” folder where you can read them later.) Unsolicited stuff is called “Spam” and if you identify messages as “Spam” by clicking the button above your email list, this unsolicited stuff will no longer come to you. But don’t use Spam just to get out of receiving a gardening catalogue that you once wanted. “Unsubscribe” by hitting the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of their next email. If you mark them as “Spam” to get off their list, you may mark them as bad-guys or “spammers” and screw up their actual requested distribution.

Reinstate the 5 o’clock whistle: We are a 24-hour-news-cycle-work-all-weekend-society and we are tethered to our devices. Take a stand for civility and make a boundary of the time of day you will quit looking at/dealing with/paying attention to your email and actually engage in human face-to-face interaction. Set any schedule that works for you. I look at my email first thing in the morning, hold the shift key and delete a whole pile of my messages without opening them, leaving me only the messages to either do something about immediately, forward to someone else or put on my to-do list. Then I look at my messages again about midday and then just before I am going to call it a day. Each night, my Inbox contains only my To-Do’s and I hold that list to be sacred. I keep the list as a note on my iPhone and deal with as many items a day as possible. This list also allows me to sleep soundly, knowing I don’t have to fret about what I might forget. It’s all right there on my list, generated from the emails I sorted over the last few days.

Take your time: You didn’t get in the mess in a day and you won’t get out quickly either. Take a bite out of your messages each day. Soon you will be caught up and, if you stick to your new discipline of clearing your Inbox each day, you should never again be forced to use the emergency ripcord of online messaging—Email Bankruptcy.

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Kitt Walsh owns a web content company, Behind Blogs (http://www.behindblogs.com), is a regular contributor to CNN Money, a public speaker on Social Media, a book editor and ghostwriter, and freelances as a feature writer, editor and marketing consultant for magazines, newspapers and private clients around the world.