Or how I learned to let go and make peace with Gmail categories. By Meghann Foye, REDBOOK.
I haven't always had such an uneasy relationship with my email inbox. But after a few job changes over as many years, things have gotten a little nutty. At first I rationalized it - 2,279 unread personal emails aren't so bad, when they're mostly coming from places like Rue La La, Banana Republic and Expedia. But then I had another thought: I've been feeling a little overwhelmed by the tide of life lately - letting gym appointments slip, forgetting to send back shower RSVPs on time, canceling plans with friends because I'm too pooped. Maybe it's normal to move slower coming after a long winter, but it's not like me to be in constant apology mode. So when Sheree Wu, my friend and co-founder of Solution Mavens, offered to consult with me on an email clean-up, I sent back a resounding, "Yes!" Can I well-organized inbox result in a fully working life? I think maybe it can.
Consider using her seven-step process to whip your inbox - and life - back into shape:
1. Know the game. When I show Sheree my inbox, I'm sipping my latte so fast I think she's afraid I'm going to choke. But she isn't shocked by my 5,000-plus unread emails. Digital marketers have become very savvy, targeting potential customers with ever more enticing daily emails, she explains. I notice her calm expression compared to my frantic one. Could this be caused by an unruly inbox lurking in the back of my mind? She senses my trepidation. "No reason to beat yourself up. But instead of letting your inbox fill up like a dam ready to burst, you have to figure out a system that works for you."
2. Pour a glass-or two. It turns out our coffee shop date was no accident. "Setting up a whole new system can be overwhelming, so the trick is to make it a fun experience," says Sherre. "Be patient. You can start with an hour a day, or an hour a week if that's all you have. Have a glass of wine and start from the top: reply, file or delete."
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3. Jump in - with a plan. We start by surveying the contents my personal email. It seems that most of the bulk is coming from a host of clothing retailers, daily deal sites and some inspirational blogs that I occasionally like to read. The rest is emails from friends and family that I want to keep, but seem to constantly getting lost in the shuffle. We come up with basic categories, and then a plan for daily maintenance. Reply, file or delete seems a little unrealistic on a regular basis, since I'm usually scrolling through on my mobile checking for emails from friends, so Sherre suggests another system for the ADD among us: the flag or star system. Just flag a message as important once you've read it. Then once a day or once a week, go through everything, responding, filing, or deleting anything you haven't flagged.
4. Divide and conquer. Sherre then moves us on to my work email. That's where I start to recoil. Maybe it's time to switch over to wine. She digs a bit, asking me why I'm so afraid to categorize? Then it hits me: ever since I once lost an important email a few years back at another job and was reprimanded as a result, I've been hesitant to file anything away for fear of losing it. Sheree addresses my revelation with understanding, but then asks me to consider the worst that could happen: "You were able to figure out a solution in the end, right? It's really not that big a deal." Who knew a look into my inbox could reveal an old war wound that's been haunting me without me even realizing it? "Plus," she then adds, "you can search by entire inbox now, even if it's in a folder, so that's less of a problem. And on Gmail, you can categorize the same email under multiple categories." Taking action diminishes my fears and soon, I'm well on my way to structure with 10 new, clearly labeled folders. Another helpful realization for those not blessed with a love of label-makers: "Your email folders should mimic those manila files you'd have on your desk."
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5. Get down with filters. Once you've set up an ongoing system to file away the daily incoming tide, start using filters to sort the less important stuff automatically. Gmail lets you do this rather easily just by copying and pasting the email addresses you'd like to have moved under any category you name, such as "retailers." Sherre also suggests taking the time to unsubscribe to emails you no longer want to receive to make this process even easier, especially if you're dealing with an already overwhelmed box like mine.
6. Come up with a daily system. Figure out how often it makes sense to do use the R.F.D. or Star system - every time you check your inbox, three times a day, or just once at the end of the day, so you're left with zero emails in your main inbox each day. "It's really about creating a policy so things don't get out of control," says Sheree. I ask her whether it's better to do this constantly - like I've become accustomed to thanks to my iPhone. She demurs, "When people live on 'constant checking mode' I don't think they can fully focus. When you're with someone and you constantly check out of the conversation to scroll through your phone, that disrespects the person you're with. In our world, we have to put the phone down in order to have a full life." Instead she suggests setting a reminder in your calendar for a half-hour once a day to deal with any remaining mail so you don't forget.
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7. Rack up bonus points. Then, Sheree lets me in on a master secret. "Once a month, I'll go through and create or update contacts with people's phone numbers, signatures and mailing addresses, so I know I have their info, even if I can't find it. I always do that for birthdays, too. When their baby is born, I'll put his or her baby's birthdate under their parents contact info, so I have that, and can send out a little Happy Birthday note." Phew - that sounds totally advanced. Then I get a vision of myself one year from now, sitting on a bench, thinking about the baby card I've just sent to my friends, smiling as I sip my herbal tea. I am a perfect friend. I am starting to see how getting control of this situation could have results in ways that carry through to the rest of my life. Then, I realize that Sheree has always been the friend who's doing sweet things for everyone and I've always wondered how she has the time. This is the reason!
Categories clearly labeled, filters set in motion, my latte now remains untouched. Life feels calmer already. "Think of it this way," says Sheree, marking the end to our appointment, "A disorganized inbox is like running with 10 pound weights on each leg, once you get rid of the clutter, you'll feel like you're sailing through your day." In just six easy steps and one glass of wine later, I am.
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