Letterboxes – How to organize your email (Part 1)

Do you ever do this – take your mail out of your letterbox, quickly scan it, and then, put it all back into the letterbox?

No? Never? What a weird question, who'd ever do that!

The humble letterbox

I don't know about you, but I usually sort them into "piles" depending on what's to be done with them. I suspect that that's the case with most people.

Yet what do we do with our email inbox? By leaving them in the inbox folder, we are doing the equivalent of putting them back into the letterbox.

Then that "letterbox" (our email inbox) starts filling up, we feel like we're losing control, and then, when it's just too much, we dedicate a lengthy block of time to cleaning it up and "organizing" it.

An insight from the letterbox analogy

Let's take the letterbox analogy a bit further and see if it can give us any insights.

So we take whatever is in our letterbox into our house, we sort (process) each item, and place it into separate piles:

  • This one's for John.
  • A bill to pay – put that on my to-do pile.
  • Supermarket offers for this week – trash it.
  • A notice from the bank about an investment opportunity – sounds interesting, examine in detail later.
  • This one's for Mary.
  • Yikes, a fine – put that on my to-do's as well.
  • Peter's birthday party – better mark that in my calendar now.
  • A receipt from the gas company – file that.
  • "You have won 1 million dollars" – yeh, thanks, trash it.
  • Time Magazine – I'll read that later.

What we've done is reduce that one big pile into a number of smaller piles.

  • Have to do pile – the bill to pay, the fine.
  • Like to do pile – read Time Magazine, notice from bank re investment opportunity.
  • Pass on pile – to John and Mary.
  • For filing pile – the gas company receipt.
  • Trash 'pile' – this isn't a pile, of course!
  • And we actually did something straight away – put a reminder of Peter's birthday party into our calendar.

By the way, does anyone assign priorities to this (physical) mail? (What do high, medium, and low priority mean anyway? A, B, C anyone? 1, 2, 3? Urgent, important?)

Have we actually done any of those things on the to-do pile? Have we actually "passed on" the items that are for John and Mary? No, we haven't; but we have them in more manageable chunks that we can deal with, and, they're grouped into piles with like items that require the same type of attention from us.

We all seem to be good at doing the sorting. Actually doing the things that are on those piles is another story. But we've made that initial decision about each and every item. We don't consciously think about it, but we are "in control" at that level.

If we don't do the things on the "have to do" pile, we'll "get burnt", in some way, but at least we'll know why when we do. There won't be an embarrassing call to someone trying to convince them that you never got the initial notice.

The lesson to be learnt

Our letterbox is a collection centre, not a processing centre. We should treat our email inbox folder the same way.

What (negative) effect does it have on us when we use the email inbox folder as a processing centre?

  • Every time we open our inbox, we have to try and remember what we've previously told ourselves we are going to do about each and every item.
  • If it has anything more than a screenful of items, we fear that something that absolutely has to get done, will fall off our radar. We hate looking at our inbox and feel guilty at its state.
  • At some point, we have to dedicate a lengthy period of time to "cleaning up" our inbox.

In part 2 of this series, we'll spell out what to do to return your email inbox to its proper role – a collection centre (not a processing centre).

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