Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 24;   June 11, 2008: Inbox Bloat Recovery

Inbox Bloat Recovery

by

If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't. Here are some effective suggestions.
Boston in 1826

Boston in 1826. Compare this map to Boston today to appreciate how much of the city's land is actually claimed from the sea and estuaries. (A large, zoomable version of the 1826 map is available at the Web site of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. A large version of modern Boston is available at the National Park Service Web site.)

Claiming land to make more space for a city is analogous to clearing your inbox to make more space for new mail. Once the clutter is removed and your day-to-day operations are more regular, you'll be more effective. Messages will be easier to find, things won't get lost in your inbox, and you'll feel better about the whole thing. Like creating new land for a city, clearing your inbox creates value from empty space.

If your email inbox is bloated, you probably want to clean it up. If you cleared it out recently, and it's gradually re-bloating, you probably fear it's happening again. Maybe you've just given up altogether.

Unless you have an assistant, or you're one of the carefully energetic few who regularly keep their inboxes clear, bloat and bloat anxiety are facts of life. Advice about how to keep your inbox clear once it's clear does help, but it doesn't help you get your inbox clear — it doesn't help you recover from bloat. Here are some suggestions for bloat recovery.

Recognize that inbox bloat is a fact of your life
Some believe that once they clear their inboxes, they'll magically stay clear. Sadly, that doesn't work. Unless you change how you operate, re-bloat is inevitable, and cleaning up is hardly worth it.
Keep doing what you're doing
Whatever you've been doing, keep it up for now. Beating yourself up for not dealing with every single one of today's messages is demoralizing. Instead, focus on the total message count — drive it down a little every day.
Use sort-by-subject and sort-by-sender
When you work on the backlog, sort your inbox by sender or subject, instead of by date. That way, related messages often appear next to each other, and you can select and deal with several at once.
Read your new email less frequently
Do what you can to read new email less often. Allocate some of the time you save to sorting, classifying, and deleting old mail.
Move aged messages elsewhere
Move all messages more than three years old to a folder elsewhere. Think about it — three years is enough time to create a toddler who sasses you back. Messages that old are unlikely to be of value, but if you want them, move them elsewhere.
Beating yourself up for
not dealing with every
single one of today's
messages is demoralizing.
Let it go.
Filter out the junk
Even if you're protected from junk, occasionally junk does get through. Search for the usual keywords and delete the junk. Also look for old out-of-the-office messages.
Eat elephants in small bites
It probably took a long time to build all the bloat in your inbox. Give yourself time to get rid of it. A goal of reducing it by 25 to 50 messages per day is reasonable, but go easy at first. Set the goal low enough to give you some experience of achievement, and before you know it, your inbox will be nearly clear.

Managing your inbox to prevent bloat requires adding some regular practices to your routine. Until you dramatically reduce the current bloat, these practices will have little effect. But you can get started learning about them, and start using each new practice as soon as you understand it. More about these in a future article. Go to top Top  Next issue: Coping and Hard Lessons  Next Issue

101 Tips for Writing and Managing EmailAre you so buried in email that you don't even have time to delete your spam? Do you miss important messages? So many of the problems we have with email are actually within our power to solve, if we just realize the consequences of our own actions. Read 101 Tips for Writing and Managing Email to learn how to make peace with your inbox. Order Now!
Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!

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See also Effective Communication at Work, Writing and Managing Email and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
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When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

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