Let the Right Ones In

If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to find it.

Rummaging around in your kitchen cabinet for that special bottle of vinegar might take a minute or so, but you’re not distracted in your search by the tomato paste cans or the bags of rice. You can filter those out. Your mind is set on finding that specific bottle.

On the other hand, if you’re just poking around to see what kinds of vinegar you have on hand that might work in the recipe you’re making, your search will take longer. You’ll read each label. You’ll read part of the walnut oil label by accident because your search is not so goal directed and you aren’t filtering out any potential candidates. With each likely container (okay, not the bags of rice) you’ll ask “are you what I’m looking for?”

Now, both of these strategies have their place in your kitchen. They’re not as effective when applied to your email inbox. With the first strategy, you are looking for a short list of items. With the second, you’re reading the entire email in case it contains anything that might remotely interest you (and you don’t really have time for that, now do you?). Scanning and filtering is the name of the game here.

How do you do that?

Here’s a tip from Bill Jensen’s book, The Simplicity Survival Handbook (yes, it was published in 2003 (ancient!) but the points are still valuable). You can delete 50% of your email by passing it through this filter: if after reading the subject line and sender’s name, you don’t feel that you MUST read or scan the email TODAY, delete it now.

Whoa, pretty ruthless, isn’t it? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, immediately stash all those emails in a “Hold” folder for a month or a week or however long you can stand it. Then go through them and see if you really missed anything of consequence. Don’t include emails that were resent with better subject lines so that you actually read them (that could mean you successfully trained the sender by not responding!) It’s also an indication that really important messages will keep coming back until you respond. So, relax.

Want to take it further? Your filters need to let in important information about your current projects. That is; deadlines, next steps, desired results, critical resources and pertinent changes. Filter out: nice-to-know information, general email blasts, recaps of meetings where you took your own notes, industry news, requests that are sent to a group (let someone else answer) and company policy memos.

For you information junkies that still might seem too stringent. So, use the Hold folder. If you can make time to read everything in there without compromising your workload, congratulations!

Using a Hold folder is a good way to wean yourself off of indulging in the novelty of new email. We humans seem to be hardwired to crave novelty. It’s not gonna work to prevent email from arriving, so do what you can to remove the temptation to check continually and to be constantly engaged.

Do you have any filtering tricks to stave off email overload? I’d love to hear them.