In his book, How To Be A Productivity Ninja, Graham Allcott talks about 7 things that you can do with an email when it hits your inbox. The point of this sort of processing is that it keeps your inbox at a manageable level and you don’t have to wade through thousands of messages to see what is important. So if your email inbox is looking untidy and you are struggling to find things, block out an hour in your diary to go through it and sort it out. Here are his recommendations for clearing out your inbox – choose the right response for every message and you’ll soon have it looking more manageable and feeling less stressful!

Delete it

You’ll probably find a lot of emails in your inbox that you don’t need to keep. Things about ‘cakes in the kitchen’ or general office announcements like ‘we’re clearing out the fridge’ or ‘there will be a fire drill on Friday.’ All this stuff can be deleted. Why are you keeping it, anyway?

You can probably also delete some project-related emails that are now out of date. Take a look at long conversation chains and see if it is worth keeping them all. It won’t be. Keep the last message in the chain which will have the entire history and delete all the other previous emails. That should get rid of a lot!

Do it now

If the email requires action and it’s quick to do (say, less than 5 minutes), do it now. Then you can delete the email, respond or whatever, but the action isn’t hanging over you.

Do it later

If the email requires action but it’s going to take longer than a few minutes, you can add the task to your to-do list. Then you won’t forget to do it, and you can block out the appropriate length of time to deal with it in due course.

Decide it doesn’t need action

Some emails don’t require action but you do want to keep them. File the message for reference later. Allcott recommends creating a separate folder in your mail system for this sort of useful information so it doesn’t clog up your inbox. Then you can access that folder and review your useful messages whenever you need to.

An example of this sort of mail would be the announcement of a new project management process that you need to follow (but just not right now) – something you want to keep until you need it. If your PMO has emailed you user guides for your online project management software like Seavus Project Viewer, they could also be filed in your ‘useful information’ folder. Although, of course, you could store the attachments elsewhere on your network server or PC so that you can delete the email after all.

Delegate it

Perhaps the email does need some action, but just not from you. Forward it on to the person best placed to deal with it, preferably with some instructions about what you are expecting them to do. Once you’ve done that, you might need to…

Follow it up

There will be some emails where you don’t have to take any action yourself but you want to keep an eye on the project task and make sure that the person who is supposed to be doing the action is actually doing it. Allcott recommends creating a folder for this too, which he calls the ‘waiting for’ list. You can pop any relevant emails in there and then check back regularly to ensure that the person doing the job is on top of it.

Defer the decision

Finally, you don’t have to decide right now. If making the decision about what to do is going to interrupt the flow of clearing out your inbox, then skip over that email and move on to the next one. However, don’t leave it too long before you go back to the message and try to work out what to do with it. "The point is most people defer making those decisions to the point that valuable information is lost in and amongst a lot of stuff that should have been deleted a long time ago," Allcott writes.

Allcott concludes that 20% of emails are actionable and the remainder is low priority noise. That’s a lot of emails that you could do without during a day, but unfortunately, unless you radically change the culture of your project team and business you are still likely to get a lot of useless messages.