Education Opinion

5 Steps Toward Solving the Inbox Paradox

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 11, 2014 4 min read
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How many emails arrive in your inbox daily? How many remain there for days, weeks? How do you decide which to keep and which to delete? To which ones do you immediately respond? The challenge to decide how to handle the ever-increasing number of emails seems to have no single solution. There are those emails that we don’t delete and others we won’t delete. There are emails we did delete and spend time, months later, searching for because they held information we suddenly need.

The two of us deal with the inbox differently. One of us answers emails immediately. The message is handled and put away. The other one of us picks which emails to read and when. She thinks about how she wants to respond and does so hours or days later. This difference is one of the many issues we had to learn to navigate as we began working together. Whether it is a co-author or a student in a hybrid course, parent, teacher or colleague, everyone has expectations about emails and texts and the meaning of timely for responses.

Sometimes the bulging inbox offers comfort, knowing all that was sent is still there if we need it. Filing away emails has raised covering one’s xxx to a fine art form. At other times that bulging inbox feels like an oppressive big project or responsibility that may have slipped off the to do list. Packed inboxes are like all other clutter. With a new year quickly approaching this may be the time to address inbox habits. Perhaps there are things we can do to begin anew and live a more de-cluttered 2015.

1. Manage the Glut
We each have multiple email accounts and we share the Leadership 360 one. It certainly helps to have separate private and work email accounts but it can also double the problem. One of us has an email account for subscriptions ...this one gets all the sales, recipes, blog alerts, etc. Although this one might be the easiest to let pile up, those blog alerts can be essential information missed. No matter the system for management used, if we don’t have a good method for managing the glut, more accounts can make the problem grow exponentially. What follows are simple suggestions.

2. Organize Email by Subject or Project
Some email systems even allow you to create a way for those emails to automatically go to a specific folder. In this way, when you are ready to sit down and deal with a specific project, instead of dealing with their random placement in the inbox, they are sitting in a folder all together ready for action. Google is rolling out a new Inbox where emails can be pinned, snoozed or done. It is true that only one of us knows the difference between these things so you know our learning curve is always rising. When something is marked done, it is gone from your list of emails but you can still search for it later. Check here for more information on that. Other email systems have similar options. It is worth checking it out.

3. You Can Search and Sort
Learn how to use the search and sort functions of your email client. Usually your email is sorted by date but you can sort by sender, subject, attachments, or urgents. The search function can also search the entire contents of an email.

4. Unsubscribe if You No Longer Need the Email
This is most often a problem in personal email accounts. When buying something or shopping around there are times, even unknowingly, when you inadvertently subscribe. Suddenly email from a business you may have ordered a gift from is emailing you every week. Instead of scrolling down and clicking on unsubscribe, often we think, “Well, maybe there will be a sale I am interested in.” Unsubscribe! Next time you are shopping, certainly you will remember to return to their website. This is also true for professional organizations and conferences you have attended. Tracking is a marketing tool that they have mastered.

5. Schedule Time
Set aside designated time to quickly read the titles of emails and senders. Flag the ones you need to read later when you have more time. Delete emails that you don’t need.

Like everything else in our lives, in order for us to be in control of where and how we spend our time, scheduling time to attend to the organization and responding to email is a survival skill. As new technologies appear to help us in our lives and work, their capacity to help or complicate our lives depends upon how we interact with them, much like how we manage our time with people.

Unclutter and Be Present
No one, no teacher, no school leader, no one escapes the complex responsibilities our jobs and our lives include. Balancing our lives and our work requires thoughtful organization...think of it as our life’s inbox. Clutter in our minds is tantamount to clutter in our inbox and visa-versa. The effect of making a To Do List in order to de-clutter our minds and help us accomplish what needs to be done, unpacking and organizing thoughts can be duplicated by taking control of our bulging inboxes. Of course, one of us is thinking at this moment that we could be writing about mindfulness and developing the practice that quiets the mind, settles the breath and allows us to be more clear thinkers but back to the inbox...

In order to be present with the people in our personal and professional lives, we need to have control of our distractions, the internal ones and the external ones as best we can. Our inboxes are, in fact, something worth management effort. After all, whether it is through to do lists or mindfulness, leaders need to develop those habits that allow us to be present in the moment with the person or issue in front of us. We do not serve well when our mind is on the last email we read or the subject line or author of one waiting. Sometimes it is hard to remember the places where we have choice. The technologies that bring other people and their lives into our offices and homes and cars are not taking away choice. They are creating new access and flooding us with information but choice remains ours.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.