Now that time is shorter than ever for me, e-mail is one of the things I am processing in a very organized way.
Last January, I achieved Inbox Zero. For those of you not familiar with the term: it simply means an empty mailbox. No, I didn't simply select all and delete all, but I actually archived what was necessary into the right folders. I had more than 7000 mails in my Gmail, around 1000 in my TU Delft mail and just a bit in my USFQ mail. After hours and hours of organizing and sorting, I finally was looking into an empty mailbox.
Ever since then, I've been taking an action-based approach to email, according to the following rules:
1. Limit the amount of time spent on email per day
I now have 1 hour dedicated to e-mail and other errands during the day. That still might sound like a lot of time, but in reality, I could be spending much more time in my Inbox if I weren't strict on the time I want to spend on mailing. For me, it is very clear that email is not my priority. It's not part of my job description and it's not going to move my career forward. What's even worse: if you spend a lot of time on email, you will generate even more email, as replies generate replies - and keep you busy. If you don't limit the time you spend on email, it can seep into all hours of your day.
2. Don't check email first thing in the morning
I check my email in between my 2 lecture hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and during my office hours (provided that I have no students visiting) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If, for some reason, other activities seep into those hours, then I just defer processing email to the next day. Sorry for people who are waiting for a reply (but, urgent matters can always go over the phone, or people can come and see me in my office), but I have better things to do than stare at my mailbox the entire day.
3. Take action on every mail
To keep inbox zero, I take action on every email in my inbox.
I open the message, and if it's not important, I delete it without further thought.
If it is important, I need to decide whether I reply right away, or need to schedule some time to figure out something and then reply. If the latter is the case, then I take my planner and allot time to it in my planning. For both cases, I will archive the message in the right folder and delete it from my mailbox. If it's a pending task, I'll look it up in the right folder and take action from there.
4. Evaluate if you need to email about this
I try to keep emails as short as possible to avoid confusion and not to overload the other party. Also, I evaluate if it is really necessary to send an email. Can I stop by somebody instead, can I call or can I just ignore it because the matter is not important? If yes, other actions can be more suitable than emailing.
5. Unsubscribe from all crap
I'm delighted with the advent of unroll.me - a service that helps you unsubscribe from all newsletters that clog up your mailbox, and makes a daily overview from newsletters that you might like to keep. I unsubscribed from 90 sites, rolled up 38 and kept 11 in my inbox - it makes all the difference in my gmail inbox.
If you want to learn more about inbox zero, I recommend you check out this Slideshare presentation: