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Is it possible to clear out your e-mail inbox—and keep it clear—daily?

Yes. But you must be willing to change your behavior, says Michael C. Hyatt, author and president of Thomas Nelson Publishers, who recently wrote about taking control of his own inbox.

“Making the investment is well worth the effort,” he says. “When you are not on top of your e-mail, you feel out of control. It can also torpedo your career, since people tend to associate responsiveness with competence. Therefore, becoming an e-mail ninja is an essential survival skill.”

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He recommends these four behaviors:

1. Make it your goal to process every message—which isn’t the same as answering every message—and empty your inbox every day.

2. Read each message once, answering this question quickly: “Am I being asked to do something?” If so, there are only three possible actions: 

  • Do: Take action on the task now. Follow the two-minute rule: If you can do what is being requested in less than two minutes, do it immediately. “This gets stuff off your to-do list before it ever gets on it,” says Hyatt.
  • Delegate: Pass the task along to the person best equipped to handle it.
  • Defer: Consciously decide you will do the task later. Either add the task to your to-do list or schedule an appointment with yourself to complete it.

If the action is not actionable or you’ve already acted on it, you have these two options.

Delete:
Determine whether you’ll need the information later. If not, delete it.

File: Think you might need the information later? File it. And this is where Hyatt offers his most important piece of advice: Put everything in one folder called “Processed Mail.”

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When you set up more complicated filing systems, he insists, it can lead to procrastination. Example: You may become bogged down in deciding whether to file a message under “Frank”because he sent it you, or “XYZ Project” since that was the subject. And what if the e-mail covers more than one subject?

Forget all that. Let your search program find messages when you need them, since most programs search for words within the subject line or body text. It’s well worth the time saved in filing. 

3. Use keyboard shortcuts. Nearly every mouse action has a keyboard equivalent. “My personal goal is to never use the mouse,” Hyatt says. “Every time I do, I must take my hands off the keyboard. It doesn’t sound like that would cost you much time, but it adds up.”

4. Let e-mail rules filter the low-priority stuff. “If you haven’t discovered e-mail rules,you’re missing a great timesaver,” Hyatt says. Example: He set up a rule that moves “cc’d” e-mail to a lower-priority “CC Mail” folder.

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    book cover
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