Should you empty your inbox?

With the advent of powerful search tools for emails, be them web ones (a-la Gmail or Outlook.com) or client based (MS Outlook), many people believe it’s OK to leave all incoming emails in their inbox and to stop filing them in folders. The thinking is that you always can search whatever you need to find it your 10,000 emails filled inbox.

There are “pilers” (people that pile-up and search) and there are filers (people that sort and file in structured ways). I get this. It’s more a question of personality than sheer right or wrong approach.

That being said…

I stumbled onto this WSJ 1’30” video from Ritz Carton’s Simon Cooper where he talks about email and how he uses it. There are a couple of nuggets that I believe make lots of sense from a personal productivity perspective:

  1. Don’t leave your office without emptying your inbox
  2. Being on top of your inbox is a key aspect of keeping in control of your business (or responsibilities)

Many time have I been waiting for people looking for an email they wanted to share with me or, worse, telling me they had not received my email or had forgotten about it because it’s somewhere within their 10,000 emails, including 1,500 unread ones.

With such a “system”, how can you know that:

  • Things you should be on top of, are being followed up as expected?
  • You are not letting people down by dropping the ball somewhere?
  • You are not wasting your and other people’s time by permanently looking for this email somewhere in your inbox? (“wait I’m sure it’s here – I recall seeing yesterday – of maybe if I sort by name, or by date- oh let me do a search….”)

By cleaning your inbox and leveraging a process a-la GTD (or a simplified version of it) you will be much more in control of your life and deliverables. By allowing your inbox to explode in size you won’t. At least not fully. This is a simple as that. At least for the vast majority of people.

The simplest and lowest hassle way is to have a “reference” folder where you would put ALL your emails (the ones you don’t want to delete from your inbox) and, in an “Action” folder all emails that require you to do something. This is not forcing a piler to become a filer. It’s about being sure that:

  • Nothing is left in your inbox that you have missed: The Inbox is always empty when you’re done.
  • You have one folder with all the emails that require action
  • You have one folder with your 10,000+ emails you did not want to delete for various reasons.

5 thoughts on “Should you empty your inbox?

  1. Greg

    Sounds like your follow-up folder is the new inbox… I would say if it deserves a follow-up create an actual outlook follow-up task and archive it (setup a shortcut to do that)

    Reply
    1. Olivier F Fontana Post author

      That’s indeed an option. However, follow up does not always mean to will, once taken care of, need or want to archive it. More often than not, when I go through my weekly review, I delete most of these emails once the activity has been completed.

      Reply
      1. Greg

        Why worry about “over archiving”? If it’s something worth following up on it can’t be that much of a stretch to save a copy.

        After using gmail for a long time for personal email I’ve gotten use to quickly archiving things and not worrying as much about it.

  2. Renaud Marly

    Thanks for the reminder on the Olympic minimum of email processing!
    I teach also the 4D rule to juniors, a good way to get rid of less than 2mn actions.
    My inbox is empty at least once a day and few people understand how 😉

    Reply

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