Managing Your Inbox: Physical or Online

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” – Bill Gates


I have one physical inbox (a standard black office tray) in out kitchen for mail, the kids’ school work, or forms to be signed and papers to file.  Everything else hits the recycling bin.  This tray is out of sight when the kitchen drawer is closed in an effort to have a clear countertop.  The kids are responsible for putting their school papers in the inbox, and I’m responsible for  taking a few minutes every (or every other) evening to review and process what’s accumulated.

For your paper inbox at home, encourage school age kids to put papers from school inside as soon as they’re home each day.  Place mail there as well so your spouse can locate it.

No doubt unwanted magazine or catalogs pass through your inbox tray from time to time.  While tossing undesirable catalogs into the recycling bin as soon as they arrive is a great habit to form, I encourage you to keep a list of them and make a handful of calls to those companies at one sitting to be removed from their mailing lists.  It can take 2-8 weeks for the mailing to stop, but it’s worth it!  I’ve made calls to even the companies whose items I’m likely to buy.  If I need something, I simply go to their website or the store instead of inviting their catalogs into my home to try and sell me on something we don’t need.

(If you’re curious as to what’s in the flowered box of our family’s inbox drawer, there are stamps, scissors, and other items I use to pay bills or send notes.)


Here’s a simple phone rule too many of us overlook: If people have your phone number, chances are they’ll use it.  Be selective in giving it out, and let people know if you prefer texts or email to a call.  Consider letting calls go to voice mail unless you have a hunch they’re an emergency when you are focusing on a person or special project with a deadline. Communicate to others the opportunity to email or text you back when you leave a voice message on their phone.  Conversations are important, but having several of them can truly sidetrack your day.

I’m a big believer in the practice of getting one’s inbox to zero…as in zero messages in the inbox.  It’s embarrassing to confess that, at a time in my life when my communication process was out of control, I did a complete DELETE of more than 1,000 messages at once.  Funny enough, no one’s contacted me regarding any missed messages…but I don’t suggest you do this.  The most helpful changes were unsubscribing to lists, newsletters, and most blog feeds as they began arriving in my inbox, and that cut a lot of fat.  I also created separate email files for:

  • things I need to work on the next time I’m at my desk with time blocked out to focus
  • emails with content I am interested in reading at another time
  • timely messages to which I’ve replied but am waiting for a reply
  • different organizations I work with
  • a personal file under which I have nested folders for everything ranging from parenting articles I’m keeping to compliments people have shared with me to tax information.

(You can find a more specific and detailed plan in Getting Things Done.)

Consider taking the commonly shared advice of handling an email immediately upon receipt if it’ll take you 2 minutes or less and filing it (or delegating) it if it’ll take longer than 2 minutes. Once you get the hang of this, it might take only a few minutes once a day (or in my case – I try to stick to once in the morning, before lunch, and once in the evening) to whip things back into shape.

From time to time I’ve worked in organizations where I had regular messages coming and going from co-workers or an assistant.  It was of great help to me to use the Boomerang plugin for gmail to schedule messages for specific times.

I do send emails throughout the day on my smart phone but have the settings adjusted to where I’m not notified when a message comes in.  If it’s a true emergency, the people who need to contact me will call. Most phones will allow you to set a unique ringtone for those whose calls you deem a priority.  Doing this will let you know if you can overlook an incoming call if you’re in the middle of something important.

How do you tame your inboxes?



One Response to “Managing Your Inbox: Physical or Online”

  1. Megan Keith June 21, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    I totally agree about an empty Inbox! I regularly go through m inbox’s (I have 3 email addresses which I need)and keep the messages I need in my inbox and everything else either gets deleted or filed in a folder! For me, it definitely makes work seem a lot less overwhelming!

    By the way…we have started sorting through our home and are both feeling very accomplished in sorting through and getting rid of things we do not need or no longer use!

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