A newspaper article I read last week talked about people using their email inboxes to stash hundreds – or even thousands – of emails in much the same way that people who are packrats stash their physical “stuff” into the attic or garage. A few days later, I received a newsletter – by email, of course – that had an article on the same subject. But this was more business-related, talking about how an inbox full of email dilutes our focus and concentration, and breeds inefficiency and indecisiveness.

I learned a lot from both of these articles, and probably the most helpful and reassuring was this: I am not alone.

I confess to having a few hundred emails – not thousands, but hundreds – just sitting around on each of several email addresses I use regularly. And even though it would make sense to assume that other people were in the same situation, I always felt like this was my own dark little secret, something that no one else ever experienced and something about which I should feel ashamed and embarrassed.
So I’m out of the closet, so to speak, and aware that in this day and age of information overload, this is a common problem. And now that the secrecy and the emotions are removed from it, it’s easier for me to simply say, “Okay, so what do I do about it now?”

Some of the suggestions in both of the articles I read were basic and obvious, such as going through and deleting the garbage – the unwanted and unsolicited offers and mailings – as quickly as possible. That’s the easy part, and it’s something I already do.

Others weren’t applicable. A number of suggestions in the business-related article involved passing different types of email – and responsibility for them – over to your assistant, whom you’ve now trained on how to handle or process them. That’s fine for people who have an assistant, but it doesn’t do anything for me.

What will probably be the most helpful, and will ultimately make the biggest difference, is the simple realization that I need to develop a plan and follow it consistently, and that I need to devote a set and specific amount of time to it every day – until it becomes a habit or I get my inbox occupancy down to zero, which is the ultimate goal. It also helps to know that by forcing myself to do this, I will clear out a lot of clutter – things that were once important but no longer are. In the process, I’ll probably also find some gems – things that still are important, but that have slipped off my radar as they slid down the list under more recent incoming info.

My New Year’s Resolution this year had to do with getting in the habit of responding immediately whenever I got an invitation, request, or question from someone in person, by mail, or by email. I’ve been pretty good at the in-person and regular-mail things, but email is another story. And it seems like my inbox is even more loaded than before.

This could be because people and places are sending out more email than ever. Or it could be for the same reason that you start craving foods you can’t have as soon as you start a diet or develop a medical condition that forbids them. Or the same reason that a room in your house gets messier than ever as soon as you decide to give it a thorough cleaning. After all, before you can purge and eliminate what you no longer want or need, you have to pull it all out in the open.

Either way, the two articles I read are a good reminder that I still have a lot of work to do. And now is as good a time as any to get started. So I’ll devote a set amount of time and a set time every day – half an hour right after lunch seems like a workable beginning – for going through my email to eliminate what I don’t need, rescue what I do, and discipline myself to start making decisions and taking action more immediately and effectively. And I’ll start dreaming of the sense of accomplishment, power and discipline I’ll feel when I have nothing to show for it – except an empty inbox.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on March 1, 2012.
© Betty Liedtke, 2012