Let the Right Ones In

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Bottles (uncropped)If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find it.

Rummaging around in your kitchen cabinet for that special bottle of vinegar might take a minute or so, but you’re not distracted in your search by the tomato paste cans or the bags of rice. You can filter those out. Your mind is set on finding that specific bottle.

On the other hand, if you’re just poking around to see what kinds of vinegar you have on hand that might work in the recipe you’re making, your search will take longer. You’ll read each label. You’ll read part of the walnut oil label by accident because your search is not so goal directed and you aren’t filtering out any potential candidates. With each likely container (okay, not the bags of rice) you’ll ask “are you what I’m looking for?”

Now, both of these strategies have their place in your kitchen. They’re not as effective when applied to your email inbox. With the first strategy, you are looking for a short list of items. With the second, you’re reading the entire email in case it contains anything that might remotely interest you (and you don’t really have time for that, now do you?). Scanning and filtering is the name of the game here.

How do you do that?

Here’s a tip from Bill Jensen’s book, The Simplicity Survival Handbook (yes, it was published in 2003 (ancient!) but the points are still valuable). You can delete 50% of your email by passing it through this filter: if after reading the subject line and sender’s name, you don’t feel that you MUST read or scan the email TODAY, delete it now.

Whoa, pretty ruthless, isn’t it? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, immediately stash all those emails in a “Hold” folder for a month or a week or however long you can stand it. Then go through them and see if you really missed anything of consequence. Don’t include emails that were resent with better subject lines so that you actually read them (that could mean you successfully trained the sender by not responding!) It’s also an indication that really important messages will keep coming back until you respond. So, relax.

Want to take it further? Your filters need to let in important information about your current projects. That is; deadlines, next steps, desired results, critical resources and pertinent changes. Filter out: nice-to-know information, general email blasts, recaps of meetings where you took your own notes, industry news, requests that are sent to a group (let someone else answer) and company policy memos.

For you information junkies that still might seem too stringent. So, use the Hold folder. If you can make time to read everything in there without compromising your workload, congratulations!

Using a Hold folder is a good way to wean yourself off of indulging in the novelty of new email. We humans seem to be hardwired to crave novelty. It’s not gonna work to prevent email from arriving, so do what you can to remove the temptation to check continually and to be constantly engaged.

Do you have any filtering tricks to stave off email overload? I’d love to hear them.

You May Go on Vacation, but Your Email Doesn't

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Going back to work after vacation is often a let down. On top of that, there’s all the work that’s been waiting for you and the dreaded email inbox that, if each message were printed out, would bury your office knee deep in paper.

A very concise and easy to use method for cutting that inbox down to size is provided in a post from one of the David Allen Co. blogs. Here’s Kelly’s first step:

First, I knew the morning I got back to work I’d have about 6x more input than normal, so I blocked that extra time on my calendar to give myself the time I would need to get it processed. I think this is essential. There is no way a week of email can be processed in the same time I normally allow.

There are two important points here. One is that email takes a lot of time to go through if you’re actually going to do something about the messages and not just scan through them.

Two is that it’s really important to set aside time to deal with email (or any task that doesn’t seem urgent). If you don’t and you just throw yourself into catching up on everything at once, you relegate handling emails to a minute here and a minute there, while you’re checking for new emails. Or it all goes into a "pending" folder to be looked at when you catch up on everything else.

I find it helpful to sort my inbox by sender, topic or thread. That way I can easily identify emails that contain old information, answered questions and preliminary plans that I can safely delete.

Use Email to Stay Organized

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I asked my friend David over dinner one night how he manages to keep on top of all his projects at work. I don't always talk about organizing with friends, but I often discover new ways to do things from them, and that's always fun. He said that he uses his email program.

How does that work? For each project he opens a new email and starts typing in bullet points for all the tasks that need to be done that day. The emails are automatically saved as drafts and he can quickly cycle through them to see at a glance what's happening. He continues to add to them during the day, including notes from conversations and other emails. So he ends up with an outline of all project activity for the day.

He sends the emails to himself using the date and project in the subject line and then keeps them in the appropriate project folder. Sometimes they're also mailed to other people working on the project, saving him the step of copying information from other sources. And he has a chronological, easily accessible log of project activity.

I like this idea because it's simple and fast, it uses a program he already knows (no learning curve) and the information is easily transferred elsewhere, including to other people.

Juggler from jayniebell's photostream

Pay Your Bills

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Next week is National Pay Your Bills Week. Isn’t that exciting? Okay, so it’s not. It’s important though. Like filing, death, taxes and going to the dentist, bill paying is a must.

How could it be easier?

Use online banking. I believe this is a very safe way to pay, despite recent alarms. You have to do your part to make it safe, however.


  • Don’t click on links from bank emails! Just don’t ever do it. Many intelligent people have been scammed this way. Go to your bank website, log in and check for messages.
  • Check that the website address starts with https instead of just http. The “s” means the site uses encryption. Windows users will see a closed padlock indicating encryption at the bottom right of their screens.
  • Create passwords using letters and numbers, not common words. Here’s a post I wrote about how to make good passwords. Keep them safe! I record mine using hints only as described in the post.
  • Change your passwords regularly, at least twice a year.

Even if you don’t want to bank online, you can save trees and reduce clutter by getting your bills electronically. And don’t print them out! I do recommend downloading the PDF version if you want to keep a record. Sometimes your bills are only on the website for a few years and you may have to pay a fee to recover old ones.

Schedule days every month to pay bills and put them in your datebook. I use email reminders in iCal to pay my bills twice a month. Choose dates that allow for online processing or mail delivery so your payments aren’t late.

What’s to be gained by doing this?

  • Freedom from worrying about what is due when, and paying bills multiple times per month.
  • No more late fees!
  • Spending less time on a task you don’t really like anyway 😉

Tip for Purging Email

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Dump truck I admit it, there are tons of unattended to emails in my inbox. The vast majority of it is reading. I'll probably never get to it, but I don't mind it being there. The rest is threads about events or plans that needed some back and forth before getting resolved.

Just going backwards in time is a slow and unappealing way to find emails to delete. Sorting your email by subject first and then by sender will give you two distinct sets of emails that will already be grouped in nice, tossable chunks. You'll get all the emails about the long passed "January 10 meeting" or all the ones from Ellen Campbell. 

If I do start getting rid of my "to read" emails, I can easily sort those by sender too and decide to dump all but the most recent few months, in hopes that I might actually spend time reading them.

Lots of people love email folders but I don't. I use a few for archiving (i.e., things I may never look at again but it there's a slight chance I will) and that's it. When I tried using folders, I'd forget for long periods of time that they existed, and happily got along without them.

How do you decide what to unload from your email inbox? What about folders? Yea or nay?

Dump truck from @cdharrison's photostream