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Email FAIL: What You're Doing Wrong in Your Inbox

Companies are still reluctant to hire new employees and that means productivity is at a premium right now.

Tim Robberts | Stone | Getty Images

Think you’re optimized for maximum productivity?

Um, have you seen your inbox lately?

Two words: Digital garbage.

The average person gets 100 or more emails a day. And, while no one wants to point fingers, if you’re leaving a large number of those emails in your inbox, you are killing your productivity.

I know what you’re going to say — “But I keep some of them in there so I don’t lose them. What if I need them?” (OK, maybe that was me who said that!)

No one is telling you to delete emails you might need — but what you need to be doing is filing them in the appropriate folder, not leaving them in one giant list (your inbox) that you have to keep scrolling through to get to the email you need. It’s an unnecessary distraction.

“I call it the most dysfunctional to-do list in the world!” said Marsha Egan, a workplace productivity coach and the author of the book, “Inbox Detox and the Habit of Email Excellence.”

Next week is — get ready, get excited — National Clean Out Your Inbox Week! Egan offers these tips for how to get it together and chuck your digital garbage.

“Let’s say you have 300 items in your inbox,” she explained. “ It’s akin to having 300 separate pieces of paper on your desk — not in files, not in piles — there for you to just shuffle through. Therein becomes part of the productivity drain.”

Think about the mailbox at your house or apartment — “You get the mail each day and you sort it,” Egan said. “You would never put it back in!” By doing that with your email inbox, “you’re setting yourself up for productivity problems and stress problems,” she said.

Not only is all that mail clogging your inbox and causing you unnecessary scrolling, Egan said, but it’s a distraction.

Maybe your boss sends you an email saying he needs a particular report in three weeks. If you leave it in your inbox, then for three weeks, you’re constantly tripping over it on your way to other, more pressing emails. Or worse, you might open it up periodically — “What’s this? Oh, right, it’s for three weeks from now. I have time.”

Right there, that’s your inbox “Groundhog’s Day” — every day, you go through the same routine over and over again like Bill Murray’s character!

“The risk is that you’re losing minutes that turn into hours every day because the cluttered inbox is pulling you off of work that you should be doing,” Egan said.

Egan recommends setting up one or two action folders — for things that need to be done at a future date. Say, Action A and Action B — A being more of a priority than the B stuff. Then, and this is important, set reminders for a day in your calendar when you need to start working on that item. So, in the case of that email from the boss for a project three weeks from now, instead of tripping over it every day, it’s out of sight, out of mind — until that reminder pops up. And, if you’re paranoid that the reminder won’t go off — periodically scan those action folders, maybe even at the start of every day.

All of your other folders are what she calls “reference” folders. Like your personal library for client correspondence, project documentation, etc.

As you’re sorting your inbox, Egan says, you have five decisions to make: TO DO, DELETE, DELEGATE, DEFER and SAVE FOR REFERENCE.

“But don’t DELAY!” she stresses. “Don’t say, ‘I’ll decide another day.’”

One of the biggest things people do wrong with their email is checking it too often during the day. The average person checks their email between 20 and 50 times a day! She says, try five — first thing in the morning, midmorning, after lunch, midafternoon and about 15 minutes before you go home.

The goal, is to get your inbox down to zero.

Then, just like when you want to lose 30 pounds, what you need to do is lose those 30 pounds – or, get your inbox down to zero — then maintain that weight, that size of your inbox, Egan said.

One of the mistakes people commonly make is clearing out the little stuff but never getting down to that goal weight, that zero mark in your inbox.

Maybe you clear out 10 emails, then get a little buzz, a little shot of energy, over the accomplishment. You can’t just rest there — that’s like going for a run when you’re dieting, then coming home and eating a bar of chocolate. You have to go all the way in order to see the results.

“There’s a huge difference between sorting your inbox and working it,” Egan said.

Not only will sorting your inbox regularly help your productivity, it will help your stress level. If you walk in in the morning and see 300 emails in your inbox, that’s like getting hit with the stress stick. Keep it manageable and keep deleting and sorting.

And, you have to have discipline. Egan says a good way to deal with it is the same way you’d deal with your kids — they can’t go to bed before they put all of their toys away. Don’t let yourself leave the office before you clean out that inbox.

Egan has a twelve-step program, where the first steps are, much like any other addiction, admitting you have a problem — that email is managing you, not the other way around — and deciding that you want to change. Then, setting up a plan for how to tackle the problem, and committing to that plan. Involve others to help you conquer your e-ddiction and then set a target date for when you will finally kick this thing. Then, when you reach that goal, reward yourself.

Think you have a problem? Take this email assessment.

Ready … set … delete!

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  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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