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Do you want to have zero emails in your In Box but are confused by the glut of articles on the internet about how to go about getting there? Are you intimidated by the notion of consolidating all your email accounts into Gmail, setting up 37 different Outlook rules, & having 18 folders with which to manage your email?

Do you find yourself constantly checking emailsbut end up with dozens of them in your In Box when you leave work each night? Do you interrupt your work – or conversations! – to glance at an email when a notification pops up?

If this strikes a chord with you, read on. I get between 65 and 100 emails at work each day, and there’s never more than two or three in my In Box when I leave the office each night – and frequently there are none. And this ISN’T the result of my just putting them in a bunch of – or a few – folders. And I accomplish this by dealing with emails much less frequently than I used to. You CAN break the email habit!

All it takes is a little discipline and adherence to a few straightforward procedures. But first, let’s acknowledge a central truth about email…

80%+ OF ALL EMAILS ARE UTTERLY WORTHLESS

When was the last time you learned of something truly critical – Al Qaida has invaded the distribution center, the building is on fire, our biggest customer just told us exactly where we could put our latest new product… via email?

If it’s truly urgent AND important, someone will call. Or visit.

Back in the day when there were paper memos in the office – and sadly enough, I actually remember this – sending memos was a pain. You had to write something out with pen and paper and give it to your assistant or type it out yourself, make copies, stick the copies in envelopes… etc. The beauty part was it was so difficult it discouraged careless and pointless messages – or at least a fair share of them.

Today though, anyone who can barely find their way to the building each morning can send out dozens and dozens of emails every day, copying everyone imaginable. It’s produced a glut of pointless messages and worse yet, augmented by beeps, vibrations and pop-up windows, the whole experience has turned us into something akin to Pavlov’s dogs. Blackberry users have even reported experiencing “phantom vibrations” — thinking they’re receiving messages when in fact they aren’t.

A 12 step program for curing your addiction to your In Box - We begin with a few essentials:

1. Turn off all email notifications. On your PC, turn off the audible and pop-up notifications

2. Ditto for your Blackberry: turn off all notifications for emails – no vibrate, no tones, nothing for email

3. Unless you fancy yourself some sort of indentured servant, don’t check emails at night, early in the morning or over the weekend – what’s the point? If late at night, what are you going to do about an issue? If early in the morning, why bother – you’ll be at the office in a short while. If over the weekend, why risk spoiling your couple of days off? Knock it off and relax a bit! Again, if it’s earthshaking news, someone will call your cell phone.

Next, a few tips to help you establish a productive routine:

4. When you get to the office, log on to Outlook BUT DO NOT go to your In Box

5. Instead, go to your calendar

6. Check your calendar to get a sense of what interruptions you’re going to face in the form of meetings, and then take a few minutes to quietly plan your day. Check your To Do list. What are the essential things you MUST get done this day? Perhaps it’s several things each of which is of moderate importance, but they have to get done TODAY or this week

After you’ve planned your day, some basic rules – and here’s where you need to demonstrate a little fortitude:

7. I repeat: DO NOT look at your In Box

8. Instead, do something entirely novel: START WORKING on one of the tasks you’ve identified (messing around with a bunch of emails does not constitute “work.”)

9. Until you have accomplished something tangible, do NOT look at your In Box

Actually MASTERING & achieving zero emails in your In Box:

10. You’re off to a great start if you’ve made it this far without looking at your In Box.

The next part of the process is more difficult.

If you were at the dentist for a root canal procedure, how would you feel if he or she constantly interrupted the procedure to dictate messages, take phone calls and check on his/her investments? You’d be outraged, no doubt.

But we do precisely that to ourselves ( ! ) every day, hour after hour, when we interrupt our work to check our In Boxes. To master your In Box you must shift your mindset away from thinking of checking email as a constant, ongoing activity to thinking of it as a discrete project or task. Checking emails shouldn’t be like breathing — it should be more like brushing your teeth: an activity you engage in only at certain prescribed times each day.

To kick the habit you need to restrict yourself to checking email a very limited number of times per day. Not knowing your work environment, company culture or specific situation, I can’t be extremely prescriptive in this regard, but I would suggest you check email no more than 3 or 4 times each day. If you work 8-4:30, I would aim for 9AM, 11AM, 2PM, and 4PM. With this in mind…

11. Never, ever, approach reading email casually. When you go to your In Box, your purpose is to aggressively work it. You need to approach this as though you’re going into battle. Adhere to the simple approach which follows and you’ll end the day with hardly any emails in your In Box:

12. Use the 5 D’s to WORK your In Box:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Delete it
  • Dump it
  • Defer it (and this is to be done only in RARE cases!)

DO IT: if an email requires action on your part which will take less than 2-3 minutes, go ahead and deal with it – a quick response, a phone call, sending a file to someone, etc. When done, delete the original email.

DELEGATE IT: Anything which can be delegated to a subordinate, do so, asking that they confirm when the task is complete, and then delete the message. If it’s something especially critical that you absolutely must confirm has been dealt with, leave it in your In Box as a reminder. And then delete it when your colleague has confirmed it’s complete.

DELETE IT: I get copied on a lot of emails that aren’t of substance and trash all of them. Messages with reports or information I’ll never use, email “volleys” which get resolved, industry-related spam, and so forth. See rules below for exceptions.

DUMP IT: Any email which contains information I may need in the futureI “dump” onto my hard drive by saving the email in Outlook Message Format (.msg) to the appropriate folder in My Documents. Example: say someone cc’s me on an email about a team meeting on an important project. The email requires no action on my part, but I may need to revisit it or an attachment in the future. It takes only a few seconds to click File/Save As and navigate to (or create) the appropriate folder in My Documents. I’ll select Outlook Message Format in the “Save as Type” drop down box and modify the file name to include the date and sender’s last name if necessary – and then save it. I then delete the email.

Even if the original email is permanently deleted from Outlook, a copy remains on your hard drive including any attachments.

DEFER IT: Something that’s of significance and requires substantive time, effort or reflection on my part, I leave in my In Box. I’ll need to carve out some time to address this subject. When I’ve done so, I’ll save the message as described above before deleting it from Outlook.

You CAN kick the Outlook habit: if you follow this approach, attacking emails aggressively, & you’ll have very few in your In Box at the end of the day. But to succeed you really must change your mindset. Not looking at emails all day long will seem at first an unnatural act; if you’re uncomfortable with this notion, just give it a try for a day or two – you may be shocked at the results.

Please comment and share your Outlook tips and methods…

-kc

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5 Comments on A 12 step program for curing your Outlook In Box addiction

  1. [...] Of course if you wish to save individual emails, simply use File/Save As and navigate to the folder where you want to save the message. I usually add the sender’s last name and the date when the message was sent before saving it – this technique is described in Step 11 of my post, A 12 step program for curing your Outlook In Box Addiction. [...]

  2. [...] LifeApps readers know that I don’t have a lot of patience with email and favor an aggressive approach to managing your [...]

  3. Paul says:

    Just stumbled across the blog. I think I have 3k + emails in my inbox so I’m looking forward to implementing these tips so thanks! However, I fail the understand the benefit of “dumping” an e-mail to a folder in your My Docs vs. just putting it in a subfolder within Outlook. What are the advantages?

    [Reply]

  4. kc says:

    Hi Paul, – Thanks for visiting and commenting. The biggest advantage is that all documents and emails relating to a specific topic are located in one folder. Say we’re working on a big project named Alpha – all documents, powerpoints, and messages regarding the project which I want to archive are located in the Alpha folder in My Documents. I don’t have to go to multiple places.
    Perhaps my approach is different, but I’d rather have everything in one place, versus having to look in a folder in My Documents and then go to Outlook to look for something relating to that same subject. I simply don’t use Outlook for archiving messages and data.
    Hope that helps – and thanks again.
    -kc

    [Reply]

  5. Paul says:

    Thanks for the explanation. Most of my “paperwork” is email-based as opposed to document-heavy so that explains the difference in philosophy. Still, you’ve got some great principles I’m look forwarding to begin to implement tomorrow. Additionally, I’ve about decided I need to begin saving for a Red Oxx Air Boss after reading your other posts. :^) Thanks for sharing multiple tips throughout the blog.

    [Reply]

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