All my e-mails are sorted and ordered and I know what needs to be done in a timely manner and what can wait. The former have been sorted into "Action" folders, and I know to give them top priority. But all the e-mails that now reside in various Project and Someday folders no longer trouble me, as I know there is no hurry, and I can get to them whenever I feel I have the time and energy to tackle them. What's more, they are organized, so that if I decide to work on accumulated reading, or educational materials, or computer enhancements, I can navigate immediately to the relevant material.
I wrote that a week ago. It's still true. (It's still amazing.) What's more, I have reduced an e-mail backlog of more than 600 to 64, and not by declaring e-mail bankruptcy, but by dealing with each one. I don't expect the number to get much lower: the point of e-mail is to use it, after all. But what remains is in useable form, filed and easy to access. If I keep it under 100, I'll be thrilled.
However, there's a downside. Frankly, taking care of e-mail has become an obsession. I can't stand to have anything in my inbox, which is a good thing because if I can deal with it quickly I do, and if I can't, I file it appropriately. In addition, I've obviously spent a lot of time slashing my backlog by 90%. That, too, was a very good thing. But as I said, I'm obsessing. I'm spending too much time checking e-mail, just so I can deal with it. If I'm working on something else and notice that mail has arrived, I immediately drop what I'm doing to take care of it.
That was okay for the first week, but it's time to move on.
The point of e-mail control is not to get rid of all e-mails as soon as they come in; it's to deal with them effectively and efficiently, in a timely manner, and not allowing the important to get lost because of a poor signal-to-noise ratio. What I need now is to let go my Death Grip of Control a little. To acknowledge that
- the last 10% of my e-mails will take a lot longer to dismiss than the first 90%
- their numbers will continue to ebb and flow somewhat
And that's fine, because as long as
- I review them regularly so that I know I'm not neglecting something that can't wait
- I keep on top of them so that the flow doesn't overwhelm the ebb
all will be well.
My e-mail system, after all, is much like a Tickler File/Next Action Lists/Project Folder GTD system. There's no point in an empty Tickler, and no need to check it obsessively. Each day you check it once, deal with what you find, and then forget about it until the next.
My plan it to try to force myself to "check my E-mail Tickler" once each day, and do what needs to be done. That doesn't mean I'll only read e-mail once a day. I'll never be a Tim Ferriss and check e-mail once a week or less, because I've chosen e-mail as my primary form of communication. I might be able to manage his recommendation to check e-mail only twice a day, but I don't think so: I wouldn't want to miss the e-mail that says our grandchildren are asking to Skype! (Though of course that will happen anyway, unless I get a phone smart enough to nudge me when an e-mail arrives, and I'm in no hurry for that.)
What it does mean is that while I may clear my Inbox more frequently, unless the e-mail is one that (1) I can take care of in less than two minutes, (2) I would particularly enjoy answering right away, or (3) urgent, I will file it in the appropriate folder and forget about it until "Check E-mail Tickler" comes up again the following day. (Actually, I may not forget about it completely, because several of my e-mails are parts of ongoing discussions, or for other reasons will provoke long, thoughtful responses. In such cases, Li'l Writer Guy will always be busy in the background. But that's pleasure, not guilt.)
And in case you're wondering why I haven't answered the e-mail you sent, checking my e-mail tickler means making sure I know what can wait and what can't, and dealing with the latter. And then, if I have time, some of the former. If you think I've misclassified your e-mail, feel free to nudge me with another.
This is not going to be easy. There's always the fear that—as has happened with so many other of my efforts—letting go of iron-fisted control will cause the system to implode. But a system that requires so much maintenance is of no use at all. So it's time to take a risk, pry my clenched fingers off the reins, and let the system do what it's designed for.