Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


Getting your Inbox to Empty: Dealing with the first email purge

In Part Two of David Allen's book Getting Things Done, there is a lot of fabulous information about how to process your inbox. While I found it valuable and it worked perfectly for my stacks o' stuff, I tweaked the process a bit to deal with my email inbox.

When I started GTD about 18 months ago, I had around 8000 emails in my inbox, about 2500 of which were unread. At the time, I ran my company's IT department, which was the only way I could get away with having that much stuff in my inbox (I raised my storage quota on the mail server - not a best practice, by the way).

The "start at the top and deal with one item at a time" method was causing me to twitch, so I developed a different strategy. Here is what it looks like - if you're dealing with a big purge of email, I'm hoping some of the methods will help.

  • Consider temporarily following a "one minute rule" for handling messages (instead of the "two minute rule" from the book)
    • During this process, I used the one minute rule for two reasons:

      • I had too many messages to afford myself that much time per message
      • I wasn't very good at judging two minutes, and ended up spending 5+ minutes on things I thought were going to be two minute actions
  • Sort by sender, then...
    • Consider deleting:

      • Messages from people you don't know
      • Message from people who are no longer with the company
      • Newsletters you'll never read (be honest)
      • Messages from people who only send you lame jokes and hoaxes (you know who they are by now)
      • Messages from benevolent Nigerians or foreign national lotteries claiming to have money for you
  • Sort by Subject / Topic / Conversation, then...
    • Delete:

      • Issues you don't care about
      • Outdated newsletters that are still there from the first pass
    • Delete or file:
      • Issues that have been resolved
        • Decide whether you need to file the whole thread or just the one with the conclusion
    • File things you want to retain for reference, like:
      • Interesting factoids that you want to retain for reference
      • Information for personnel files
      • Information pertinent to your job, goals, hobbies, etc.
      • Funny stuff
      • Praise and criticism (I file these under Kudos, with a subfolder for Antikudos)
      • References to useful resources

By following these methods, you should be able to quickly get rid of irrelevant messages, things you are unlikely to read, and already-processed stuff.

When you're filing, don't be shy - just throw things into a file in your email client that makes sense to you. In Outlook, you can hit  ++V to quickly move the currently selected email into a file (and the dialog provides a button to create a new folder if you don't have a suitable one already). By the way, +D deletes a message -- try it out... a lot.

This process will leave you with a much shorter list of things to process, and you can then move to the more traditional "start at the top and deal with one item at a time" process outlined in the book.

Want to see the pot of gold at the end of the inbox? Click on the image at right. Got tips of your own? Please share them.

Next post, we'll deal with some ideas for setting up an email filing and archiving strategy for Outlook.

Another helpful hint:

Check out the GTD Outlook Add-In. It is now a part of my essential toolkit for helping me keep "In" empty. It includes a nice guide on GTD workflow with Outlook, and if you buy the current version you automatically get the forthcoming release that promises to add some nice new features.

There is a trial version available at the link above - why not give it a try?