Conquering Email: Waving the White Flag

Over the last two weeks, I’ve tried to usher those of you with dysfunctional inboxes into a more peaceful place — a world where emails are filed instantly, responded to promptly, and packed with valuable information. For the readers who adopted a suggestion or two and found your email lives a little more manageable, congratulations — you’re on the road to recovery.

If any of you opted for the zero inbox strategy, that’s even better; soon, you’ll find your mind at ease, and don’t be surprised if other problem areas of your life begin to improve. That pile of oily rags creating a fire hazard in your garage? Now you have the willpower to clean it out. Your car trunk full of loose tools, firewood and old magazines? Toss it all. Your faded, yellowing expense receipts from 1985? Take ’em over to the shredder. You’re done.

OK, this is supposed to be technology column, so I probably shouldn’t be advising you about housecleaning. But sometimes, even in the realm of technology, a “fresh start” is the best way to move forward. We’ve all got clutter in our lives, and very little of what clutters our lives is truly valuable. Sometimes it’s easier to toss it all in the wastebasket than it is to sort through it and figure out what’s worth keeping.

That’s what our final email strategy is all about. Some folks call it “declaring email amnesty,” others “email surrender.” Whatever you’d like to call it, this strategy is the last resort when all others have failed you. If you’ve tried moving all your messages or responding to the critical ones and you’ve still got 750 emails in your inbox, this is the solution for you. If you find your chest clenching with pressure every time you fire up Outlook, this is your safe harbor. If you’re ready to throw up your hands and deal with the consequences, read on.

Waving the White Flag

Here’s how you do it:

Go into your inbox.

Select all.

Delete everything. That’s it.

Well, that’s almost it. You’ll need to tell people what you’re doing, of course, because it might affect them. And you’ll want to adopt at least a few (if not all) of the strategies discussed in the last two columns. Otherwise, you’ll just find yourself having to take extreme action over and over again. But overall, it’s a pretty simple technique. Just like tossing out the clutter.

As it happens, this technique tends to scare the heck out of a lot of people, especially those with a lot of business contacts. The risk of a few things falling the cracks is certainly real. But, you’d be surprised how many of your colleagues would probably cheer you for taking this action. Why? Because those messages that you never answered were probably not going to get answered anyway! Even if they were answered, it was probably too late to be of any use to the original sender. Your fresh start probably means better responsiveness in the future anyway. Chances are, they’ll love you for it.

If and when you decide to take the plunge, make sure to send everyone in your address book (or at least the ones you care about) a message. It can be simple: “Hello, I am declaring email amnesty and deleting everything in my inbox. This is for your benefit as well as mine. Some messages you’ve sent me in the past might be lost in this process, so if you’re waiting on something important, please send it again. Otherwise, I hope this will allow me to respond to you more quickly and effectively. Thanks!”

Not so bad, eh? No one is going to fault you for trying to do a better job of communicating with them. And honestly, that’s what this is all about — emptying the clutter means that you’re going to think more clearly going forward. As long as you let people know what’s happening, they’ll probably support the effort. After all, half of them would probably do the same thing given the chance!

As with any wholesale purge of personal stuff, there are consequences. That one email that had directions to an off-site holiday party? Gone. All those unsolicited messages promising half-million dollar Nigerian payouts or spectacular improvements to your manhood? Lost forever. You might also lose something semi-important, like your password to your online banking account or an email receipt for a flight you booked online.

But you can get all of those things again if you really need them. And if you haven’t looked for them in the last six months, you probably don’t need them anytime soon, if at all. Still, if the possibility of losing something important is more stressful to you than the cloud of email clutter hanging over your head every time you look at your inbox, I’ve got one last option for you: Email Amnesty “Lite.”

This one’s pretty simple. Instead of deleting all those messages in your inbox, create a new folder in Outlook (or the email program of your choice). Call it “Archive” or “Stuff I threw out” or “Maybe one day I”ll look at these.” Take all those messages in your inbox and move them to that folder. That’s it.

Now, here’s the hard part: As much as you may want to, don’t go looking in that folder. Just leave it. If you need to find something and you think it might be in there, use the “Search” or “Find” feature of your email program to look for the keyword, sender or subject line; don’t go browsing through the folder, because then you’re going to start seeing things that you forgot about – things that will make you think you missed something. The point of both versions of email amnesty is to put all that stuff out of your head and out of your life. If you’re constantly taking peeks at all that consolidated clutter, you haven’t really accomplished anything more than moving your junk from one closet to another.

Got any good email horror stories? Have you tried one or more these techniques? Shoot me an email and let me know. I’d love to share your experiences in a future column. And rest assured that your email will be read, filed and responded to promptly after I receive it. I promise.

Reprinted from Identity Marketing Magazine

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