The first person said, “I really want to catch-up on email, but I have over 2,100 unread messages in my inbox. Every time I think about trying to catch up, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know where to begin!” The second person expressed a similar sentiment, confessing to more than 2,500 unread messages.
My advice to people in this situation is to declare email bankruptcy and start over. You know it’s time to do this when:
- You have more than 500 unread email messages in your inbox.
- Your colleagues are complaining about your lack of responsiveness.
- You have have had someone say more than once in the last week, “I sent you an email about that. Didn’t you get it?”
- You feel anxious whenever you think about email.
Does this describe you? If so here are seven steps to declaring email bankruptcy:
- Admit the truth. You are too far behind to catch up. Despite your periodic vows to the contrary, you are falling further and further behind. It’s time to do something radical to get back on track. Say to yourself, I am declaring email bankruptcy.
- Open your email program. Once you do this, immediately go offline. You need to “turn off the faucet, so you can drain the tub.” Email bankruptcy won’t take long—perhaps 30 minutes—but you can’t do it if you are constantly being pinged with new messages.
- Sort your messages by name. Usually you can do this by clicking on the “From” field. Now scan down through the list until you come to messages from your boss or key customers. Pick the two most recent messages from each and reply to those. But limit yourself to ten messages total. You don’t want to get stuck. If this takes more than fifteen minutes, immediately go to the next step.
- Create a new “Processed Mail” folder. This is the only email folder you will ever need. I explain why in “Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email.” For now, just trust me. Create the folder under your primary inbox.
- Move all your messages into this folder. Begin by selecting all your messages (usually ?-A on the Mac or Ctrl-A on the PC). Mark them “Read.” Now simply drag them into your new Processed Mail folder. Now look at your Inbox folder and take in the view. This is what an empty inbox looks like. By now, you should start feeling a twinge of hope.
- Don’t worry about your unread messages. Chances are, someone will ask you about a message you have filed. Count on it. You don’t need to explain that you have declared email bankruptcy. You don’t need to fib or make excuses. Simply say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see that message. Would you mind re-sending it to me?”
- Commit to the “inbox zero” strategy. Your goal is to have your email inbox completely empty by the end of each day. To do this, you will need to learn four new email skills. Again, I explain these in detail in “Yes, You Can Stay on Top of Email.” Read this article and print it out for reference. Now turn your email back on and begin to practice what you have learned. The more you do it, the faster you will get. On average, I can process 100 messages in 30 minutes.
Finally, like financial bankruptcy, you can’t declare email bankruptcy very often. It is an emergency procedure for dire circumstances. The goal is not to evade your responsibilities but to wipe the slate clean, so that you can stay on top of your responsibilities going forward.