I have a lot of email accounts. I have a work account as well as several personal accounts on Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and even an old AOL email address. At one point, I was receiving hundreds of emails per day, and my multiple inboxes were seas of unread mail with islands here and there of the few messages I was actually able to read. A friend of mine named Scott Hanselman made me aware of the term "psychic weight" . That is the burden that impossibly full inboxes (and other electronic notifications) have on the mind: so much email, so little time.
I know I'm not alone in struggling under the psychic weight of what feels like a million messages. There's even a term for what people do to deal with the problem: email bankruptcy.
There have been a number of solutions proposed to solve the email overload problem, and the most famous is probably Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" concept. This is the idea that inboxes should be regularly zeroed out to free yourself from the mental burden of so many unread messages. Merlin proposed a five step system: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do. I like Inbox Zero, but I don't think it really covers the way to not only truly get control over an overflowing inbox but to also pro-actively reduce the rate of incoming messages. It also doesn't provide a nifty acronym; unless D.D.R.D.D is a word.
I've come up with my own system for email management, and it does have a nifty acronym: D.R.A.F.T. It stands for Delete, Reply, Archive, Filter, and Transform. You apply the method by starting with the first message in your inbox and deciding whether to delete it, reply to it, archive it, filter out similar messages, or transform it (yes, like Optimus Prime). Some messages require more than one action to be used, but the overall goal is to unshackle your productivity from your inbox and direct it toward more efficient tools like your calendar, To Do List, knowledge base, etc. More importantly, you'll be less tempted to tend to the care and feeding of an overflowing inbox after work when you should be doing important things like spending time with the people you love (or your therapist).
The Pre-D.R.A.F.T. Principle
Before we get into the D.R.A.F.T. email management method, I have to make sure you understand one key principle: Fire and Forget. That means that you only deal with an individual email once. You may apply more than one action from the D.R.A.F.T. method to an email, but once you've dealt with it, don't go back to it.
Your first goal for every email should be to delete it. This is especially true for those emails that flood into your inbox because you signed up for the free newsletter of a person or business you can't even remember. One of the best ways to organize your inbox in a way that facilitates deletion is to sort your inbox by sender or by subject. If you use Outlook or some other desktop email client this is usually easy to do. It's a bit harder if you're using a web based email system through a web browser, but there is usually some workaround. For example, to see all messages by a particular sender in Gmail, hover over the sender's name in your inbox and then click "Emails" in the window that pops up. You'll be taken to a screen where all messages from that sender are displayed, and you can delete away.
If you can't immediately delete an email (if, for example, it's an email from your boss, significant other, probation officer, etc.), then your next goal should be to immediately reply to it. If writing your reply takes more than one minute, add it to your To Do List. Your inbox should not be a replacement for a To Do List!
So, you may ask, "What if I immediately reply, and that results in another reply from the original sender?" I'm glad you asked because that is why The Two Reply Rule exists. If your reply triggers another reply, then reply again. If that triggers yet another reply, then pick another communication channel because email is clearly not working. I've seen emails with more than twenty replies going back and forth. After the second reply, a phone, telegraph machine, or sign language should have been used. Email is not the medium for deep discussions!
To clarify The Two Reply Rule, here's how it works:
It's perfectly fine to send a summary email of the discussion, but don't try to have the discussion using email.
Perhaps you may not be able to delete an email due to its importance, or you can't immediately reply because a reply may not be warranted. Maybe the email is an interesting article that you actually want to read later. I personally don't get interesting emails like that, but, hey, I respect the concept. What I don't respect is leaving those emails in your inbox. Archive those suckers out of your inbox and continue to convince yourself that you'll read them later.
Deleting, replying, and archiving messages in your inbox will go a long way toward getting you to an empty inbox. However, those actions can only occur after the damage has been done (i.e., the email lands in your inbox). It is far better to preemptively keep emails from getting into your inbox altogether. One of the best ways to do this is to set up a filter that automatically performs an action on a message based on criteria you establish. Does the office cafeteria send a weekly menu? Create a filter that automatically files those emails into your "Gross But Convenient Lunch Options" folder. Does that runner girl at the office (who you don't even work with) keep emailing you with requests to fund her next 10k or half marathon? Email her your bank account and routing number with the subject "Use Wisely" and automatically filter those messages into your "Pay It Forward" folder.
Another way to preemptively keep email out of your inbox is to unsubscribe from email newsletters. If someone wants to get information to you, then they should publish an RSS feed and let you subscribe to it via Feedly or some other RSS reader (but, c'mon, Feedly is the best). Don't let those email newsletters clutter your inbox. Filter them out.
A lot of people think they have an email overload problem, but they really have a time, task, and file storage problem. As I said earlier in this article, your inbox is not your To Do list because tasks simply get buried and searching for them makes them even harder to complete. Furthermore, your inbox is not a calendar reminder to set up a meeting. Your inbox is also not your file storage system. I know we all get great attachments full of amazing content in our inboxes, but it is a disservice to the greatness of those attachments to keep them trapped in your inbox.
So, transform those messages! Instead of waiting to schedule a meeting, immediately add it to your calendar and use the body of the email to create the agenda for your meeting. Then Delete or Archive the email. If the email is a task that takes more than a minute to do, add it to your To Do list and then get the email out of your inbox (if it takes less than a minute, do it immediately). If the email has a great attachment, detach it from the email and put it in a file storage area or inside your corporate knowlege base. I prefer Dropbox for the former and a wiki for the latter.
Delete, Reply, Archive, Filter, and Transform make up the D.R.A.F.T. Method. Like any other method, it is only useful if it is used, and you have to use it over and over again to make it a habit. It will take some time, but you'll have a much more manageable inbox if you D.R.A.F.T. your emails.