I’ve read many things about email – from eBooks on dealing with email overload, but four rules or principles have stuck with me.  I don’t get these perfect every day, but I do come close to my goal.

Principle #1:  Handle email one time.

In the most recent election, political pundits predicted Ohio would be important in the electoral math equation.  But OHIO is more than a red or blue color for a TV analyst’s map – it’s a great rule for processing email.

Only Handle It Once.

When you get an email, you should only read it one time.  Immediately decide what to do with it and get it out of your Inbox.  If it sits there and you keep coming back to it, you’re wasting valuable brain space.  It might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

For this to truly work, you might find it helpful to check email a few times a day.  Rather than be distracted by automatic notifications that pull you away from a project into the Inbox, check email a few times a day, when you have a few minutes to get through everything.

Principle #2:  Two Minutes is enough.

How can you quickly get emails out of your inbox?  That’s where the two minute rule comes in.  It works great with the OHIO principle.

When you get an email, if you can deal with it in two minutes, do it right then.  Don’t wait.  Don’t read the next message.  Don’t move it to a folder and decide to come back to it later.  Don’t create a task.  Just deal with it.

But handling it in two minutes, you’ll move it off your radar and it will be done.  If it’s just an informative email, read it and delete it.  If you need it later, you can always search for it.  If it’s something you need to keep, move it to a saved folder or send it to Evernote (your unique Evernote email address works great for this).  If it’s something you need to forward to someone else, do it right there on the spot.

When responding to those emails in two minutes, you don’t need to write a novel.  Most people appreciate short messages anyway.

Of course, not all emails can be handled in two minutes.  That’s why the next rule is important.

Principle #3:  The inbox isn’t a task list.

If the email can’t be handled in two minutes, and you’re not ready to delete or file, then it’s time to create a task.  

But instead of keeping that email in your inbox, where you’ll look at it every time you open your email program, create a task in your task program (like Things).  Assign yourself a due date and let your computer remind you when you need to do it.

Let’s say you get an email with something you need to do in the next week (and it will take more than 2 minutes).  Create a task with a deadline of next Thursday and delete the email from your Inbox.  You don’t need to worry about it now – you’re going to handle it then and it will be done on time.

Remind Me is a cool tool you can use to help.  Instead of keeping that email in your inbox, you can use this nifty tool to send you a copy along with a reminder at a predetermined date.

Principle #4:  Empty the inbox every day.

This is the hardest principle to master, but there is great freedom and a feeling of completion that comes with an empty inbox.  If you process all your email at the end of a work day, you can go home with a sense of completion.

If you keep emails in your inbox, every time you see it, you’ll throw a tiny bit of thought in that direction.  That thought takes you away from the task at hand.  It really is sideways energy.

If this is too aggressive for you, what if you started with an empty inbox every Friday?  What if you made it your goal to have an empty email inbox at the end of every workweek?

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