Andy Lowenthal

Here’s a quick recap from the session I facilitated at the 2011 Next Gen of Gov’t Conference, entitled Navigating Dunder Mifflin: The Skills No One Teaches You.

Inbox management is crucial. Try to envision your inbox as an actual wooden box on your desk. If you had 300-400 files stacked to the ceiling, you would certainly have difficulty prioritizing your actions. The same is true for your electronic inbox — aim for zero. Or at least <15 — you could likely maintain an organized paper inbox with less than 15 file folders in it.

Okay, so let’s say you agree in principle with this idea of less is more. A near-empty inbox will keep you organized, agile, and satisfied. As your daily stream of messages starts to trickle in around 8:00 a.m., you won’t be distracted by your infinity scroll bar in Outlook. You don’t want a scroll bar. Keep it all “above the fold,” if you can.

Here’s how: Join the FAD: File, Action, or Delete.

File — folders, labels, filters, whatever… Just get the message out of your face. Only file those emails that YOU ARE REASONABLY SURE you’ll need for future reference. Resist the temptation to save everything for “CYA” purposes. If you work in government, you probably know what that means. If somebody wants to nail you for something, they’ll find a way regardless of what email you cough up from 2007.

Action — do it now. Review a memo for clearance? Do it. Someone asking you for an introduction to someone at GSA? Make the connection. What are you bringing for the holiday pot-luck? You know right now whether you’re the tortilla chip kinda gal or the homemade chocolate soufflé kinda guy. So you may as well just put down “tortilla chips.” In other words, why delay? People will be impressed with “how on top of things you are,” and you’ll be one step closer toward you new goal of keeping an empty inbox.

Delete — if the information in the email isn’t relevant to you, get rid of it. You should apply the same rules that you do to your USPS mailbox. You probably ditch the junk mail or rip it in half before you even make it past your front door. Apply the same vigor to keeping your email inbox free of garbage. That includes listservs, read receipts, event reminders, 10% off J.Crew coupons — in fact, where possible, you ought to unsubscribe from annoying lists. Don’t be afraid to reply to a legacy task force or working group to ask to be removed from their list. Blame it on your newfound obsession with inbox sanitization, and sanity.

KEY TAKEAWAY: While the color-coding, labeling, filtering, and smartphones maybe be useful, it’s more about your willingness and confidence to make decisions on each message within 24 hours of it hitting your inbox. Like developing any good habit, developing a routine is key.

Inspired? Get started now. If your inbox is >100, move the entire thing into a folder called “OLD INBOX – NEVER AGAIN” and chip away at it when you have 10 minutes between meetings. From this day forward, you are an inbox minimalist. For better or worse, our computers didn’t suffer from a binary meltdown on 11/11/11, but that doesn’t mean you’ve been spared. Give yourself the reboot you deserve.

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