Big Inbox? Create a 4Ds Habit and Regain Control!

Have a big Inbox? How many messages do you have? How many are unread?

This is a situation where bigger is not better!

I have 1868 emails in my Inbox going back to Feb 2012, of which 360 are unread at this moment. And most of that is not spam! I’ve got some good spam filters running that do a pretty good job of controlling the noise that would otherwise overwhelm me.

I did have this at zero a few years ago! What happened and how do I regain control over my inbox?

Inbox as an Archive

I’m not sure why I’ve left some emails in my Inbox to begin with.

  • A fitness report from one of my apps that I’ve read and did not delete
  • Receipt from a store I want to save
  • Email that I’ve read and responded to and never moved out of my inbox

Inbox as a To Do List

One trap is that I’ve let some stuff sit in my Inbox as a reminder to do something or that I’m waiting for something. A few examples:

  • Email from a blog about a new post that I want to read
  • Email from a potential client that requires a quote
  • Payment receipt from a client, I was leaving in my inbox to remind me about some unfinished work.

I’m Lost in the Clutter

With all the noise in my inbox it is an unreliable tool to remind me about stuff that needs doing. Things get forgotten with the passage of time as more email accumulates on top of it.

It adds to my feeling of overwhelm as I know there’s stuff I’m not getting to. Things that are buried that I need to go find.

So much Wasted Effort!

I waste time scanning emails I don’t need to do anything with. I waste time scrolling paste stuff I don’t need to see right now. I waste mental energy making decisions that have been made before.

I’ve let this big inbox get out of control by not following a few simple practices.

SOLUTION! The 4 Ds of Handling my Inbox

The 4 Ds define a simple method of processing incoming email that will allow me to regain control of my Inbox. They are:

  • Delete – or in some cases Archive. I have no further action to take after reading the email. An emailed receipt would be good to Archive for example. That fitness report I received from an app, Delete! No value in saving that one.
  • Do – Is it a small task that will take a minute, two at the most? Do it right now. Get it done. Then Delete!
  • Delegate – Personal Assistants are a big thing right now. I just saw one in my area advertising they’ll do all sorts of odd jobs for $35/hour. Maybe some things could get sent to a PA to take care of for me. There are a few things my wife tends to take care of so a quick forward of the email and she’ll get it done for us. Tickets to buy or arrangements to make for a group outing? Maybe a friend can help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
  • Defer – Add these items to my To Do list. Don’t leave them in my Inbox where I’ll need to look at them again and make decisions each time I see them in the list.

Each email should generally be read once and one of these actions taken on it. Anything requiring further action gets deferred and entered into my task management system.

Tracking the Deferred Emails

I use OmniFocus from The Omni Group to track projects and things that need doing. My recent email laziness has not been helping my overall system as it leaves me with multiple places to check to sort out what needs doing.

OmniFocus has a few methods I could be using, and sometimes do use, to move things that need done from my Inbox into a proper tracking system. I do better with this at the desktop because there’s a simple keyboard command to bring up an OmniFocus task entry window with a reference to the email.

When I’m processing email on an iDevice the email app doesn’t have such a link option so I’ve been leaving things in my Inbox to deal with the next time I’m at the desktop. And that part doesn’t always happen. I setup an email service that The Omni Group makes available to send an email and have it show up in the task Inbox in OmniFocus. Any emails that belong on my task list I would then forward to into the system.

Next Step

Process my Inbox backlog and stop using it to track things that need to be done.

My goal is to have my Inbox backlog fully processed in a week.

Done consistently, the result will be a manageable inbox and I can use my task tracker to sort out what I should be working on. I’ll be spending less time reading email and more time taking action and doing what I want to be working on.

Delete, Do, Delegate, Defer.

Stop wading through a big inbox by building a 4Ds habit!

Posted by Ken

Toastmaster, Woodworker, Craft Beer Enthusiast and dutiful supporter of three demanding house cats. I'm also an experienced Software Engineering Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the Information Technology and Services industry. Skilled in Operating System Development, Unix, SPARC Servers, Wordpress and PHP.

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