Skip to content

The One Page Inbox

2010 April 9
tags: Inbox, Timely Email
by Andrew   

A one page inbox? Really? Yes, really. Although, keeping it that way will take hard work and discipline…like most achievements worth making.

First, an obvious – and salient – question. Why a one page inbox? Because one page is all you can see and skim without scrolling!

If your inbox is over a page, you’ll waste time scrolling to see what needs a decision and that is counterproductive. Second, your inbox should not be where your incoming email lives until you decide what to do with it. You don’t use your post office box or street-side mailbox to store mail until you decide to respond to it, do you? Of course not, because it isn’t large enough, that’s not what it’s for, and it would soon be so full you would have an anxiety attack every time you looked at it or thought about it.


Essential Folders

Rather than walk you through all of GTD at once (daunting) or in order as presented in the book, I plan to take an approach that hopefully will yield immediate results for you. So, first, you’ll need to create a set of folders in your email client for organization of your incoming email:

    • New
    • Action
    • Deferred
    • Waiting For
    • To Read Someday

For me, those folders are listed in order of descending need to make a decision on their contents.

I will make one additional suggestion beyond GTD’s for mail holding folders for un-handled incoming mail:

    • Reply Needed
    • Not Sure I Care

So, all of these folders would appear in the following order in your folder list:

    • New
    • Reply Needed
    • Action
    • Deferred
    • Waiting For
    • To Read Someday
    • Not Sure I Care


Move everything out of the inbox

Now, let’s drastically reduce your stress. Move everything from your inbox into “New.” Then, set aside enough time to process that mail. Ignore your inbox for several hours. If you have a lot of mail, several hours may not be enough, or simply may not be feasible if you don’t have the several hours to devote to cleaning up the inbox mess. That’s OK, because the mail isn’t gone, it’s in a folder marked “New” which is in plain sight in your folder list. If you have the option, select the properties for each of these folders and change their display option to whatever looks most like “Total Messages” instead of “New Messages.” You can do this in Microsoft Outlook by right-clicking the folder, selecting Properties, and looking for options similar to those described above. Setting the display option to “Total Messages” ensures you don’t forget there are messages in there waiting for your attention.

Processing this waiting mail doesn’t mean respond to, delegate, or make decisions on everything in “New.” It means, first, delete everything you don’t need: jokes, chain email, advertisements, mail you’re one of 50 CC’s on because the sender wanted lots of people to know what was in his or her email (unless you really do need that one as an actionee or as reference for your responsibility).


Trim the nonessential fluff

It feels bad to delete people’s vacation photo emails or carefully crafted missives on the likelihood of asteroid impact. I know. Ask yourself: Does reading this message make me more productive? Does it make me less stressed about my work? Am I getting paid to read this email? If the answer is no, delete it. If you just have to keep it, move it to “To Read Someday.” NOW. Move on to the next message. The key to processing the messages in “New” is speed and draconian realism. Don’t spend more than 20 seconds deciding which folder to file it in. The more mail you’ve allowed to pile up, the faster you need to make these decisions – at least initially. If you have 200 emails and you only spend 20 seconds apiece deciding to keep and file, or delete, then it will take you just over an hour to make these decisions, which are springboards for efficiency in subsequent decision-making. If you aren’t deleting, then the message goes in the following folders:

Reply Needed: Email that can be answered with a simple response (less than five minutes is my rule of thumb), then discarded or filed in the appropriate project folder (more on this in a later article) or archive folder.

Action: Email that requires more than a response email, or for which a response requires further action. Such actions often require scheduling time on your calendar for meetings, research for the response, or completion of other actions issued by the email. Anything that takes more than five minutes to do.

Deferred: Email for which you need to wait to decide on the appropriate action. Be careful about using this to avoid a decision. Rule of thumb: If it lives in this folder for more than a week, do something with it: Delegate it (drag to “Waiting For” afterward), decide to read it someday (and file appropriately), or decide you maybe don’t care (and file appropriately).

Waiting For: Email you’ve delegated, or for which a response is owed you

To Read Someday: Email that isn’t urgent, important, or useful now or foreseeably soon.

Not Sure I Care: Again, hopefully self-explanatory. Drag mail here if reading it will make you feel better, but you don’t care when, and it has no bearing on your work productivity. Set it to auto-delete every three days. You’ll easily decide if you care or not.


The benefit

Once you have all of the mail from the “New” folder sorted into the other folders or deleted, you should be able to quickly review your new one page inbox every hour or two during the day and quickly delete trash and move the rest into “New” until your next scheduled time to process it.

Having the discipline to schedule Action Processing time and stick to it, even if you have to move it around a bit each day, is key to productivity. Not only do you have to keep your inbox from becoming unmanageable, all of those actions in “Actions” and “Deferred” require – you guessed it: action – and the mail in “Waiting For” requires periodic reviews, as well.

Really Draconian Suggestion: If you have more than 250 messages in your inbox, delete everything beyond 200. Why? You don’t have time to answer them, and a follow-up from the sender of any important ones is likely to be within the last 250.

Happy reading!


One Response Post a comment
  1. Tiffany Wargo permalink
    May 13, 2010

    I sooo needed to read this! I have a horrible inbox that I am going to spend time working on today!! Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS