I was talking to someone about email the other day, and listening to them complain about how they just couldn't get things under control. Then I sent an email to a designer friend of mine about something important, and he never responded. Turns out his inbox is 4,000 emails deep, so he missed it...
I used to be that guy, but after trying out a million different systems, I realized that no one technique worked for me. I needed something that fit into my workflow, but still made sense. Now this might not work for you, but give it a shot and maybe you'll find yourself managing your email a bit better.
1. Inbox < 20: I really wanted to work into the Inbox Zero system, but it just wasn't always feasible. Oftentimes I'd find myself keeping just one or two emails in my inbox, never quite making it happen and feeling guilty about it later.
Instead of sticking to the "zero" part of the rule, I've decided to keep it simple and make sure that my inbox always has less than 20 emails. By doing that, I don't feel guilty for having too many in there, or not quite attaining Inbox Zero. Any emails left in the inbox are usually there because they need to be acted on soon, but not necessarily immediately.
2. The 20 Minute Rule: I wish I could find where I read this, because I'd love to reference it here. But the premise was that you answer a text message within two minutes, emails in 20 minutes, voicemails in two hours, or something along those lines. Regardless of the actual numbers, I've adopted the 20 minute rule for responding to email whenever possible.
By getting back to people quickly, my inbox stays clutter free, people don't get mad because I haven't responded and I stay organized in the process.
3. Act, Archive or Trash: Every email has one of three actions for me. If I have to act on what's in there, then I respond and then take the original email and file it into an Archive folder. If I need the email but it doesn't need any response (such as a receipt or something like that), then I put it into that Archive folder again. Finally, if it's spam or junk, I just trash it permanently, that way it doesn't hog up hard drive space. I find this system works well for me because I always know where to look for something, but I get rid of the clutter at the same time.
4. Handle email in batches: Before I've even gotten out of bed, there are usually 30 emails in my inbox, all demanding some kind of attention. Even after trimming the fat and deleting the spam, there's still a sizable amount of email to handle, which can be frustrating. How do I do it?
Since I get so many emails, I can usually handle them in batches even within the 20-minute rule. This means I'm not losing time constantly checking my inbox, stopping my other workflow in the process.