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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Inbox Mistakes You Might Be Making

Email, like any form of communication, is a personal thing. How you check, manage, and send everything from one-liners to electronic missives is often a mix of preference and habit.

That being said, there are a few cut-and-dry rules that we should all be following to make the most of our email communication, our productivity, and our time. Read on for three common inbox mistakes, how they're hurting you at work, and how to make the change to better email management.

Mistake #1: Leaving Emails in Your Inbox

I'll start with the most controversial one: leaving all of your emails in your inbox. I know you think it's all the same whether you leave emails in your inbox after you've dealt with them or not, but your brain begs to differ. A 2011 study out of Princeton's Neuroscience Institute determined that "when your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus." This is true of your virtual environment, too; the more emails you can see—even ones that don't matter anymore—the more time your brain will spend subconsciously thinking about them.

The research suggests that reducing inbox clutter will make you less distracted, more productive, and better able to process information. If that's not a good reason to shelve those 3,679 old emails in your inbox, I don't know what is.

How to Make the Change

Start using your inbox for new mail only. If you're done with an email, it should be archived, filed, or deleted (see below for which to use when). You can always search for any email you need later.

Mistake #2: Deleting When You Should Be Archiving or Filing (and Vice Versa)

So now that you're using your inbox for new mail only (hurrah!), the question is: What should you be doing with all the email you're done with?

The options are a) delete or b) file in the relevant folder (or archive, for Gmail users). Many people make the mistake of veering too far on the extremes: either deleting all messages or keeping all of them. The truth is, a healthy balance is the best solution. Hoarding emails you won't need contributes toward the storage quota on your email account and makes it harder to find the emails you did want to keep when you search for them. And over-deleting? You might end up like my friend who deleted a flight confirmation email and almost missed his flight.

How to Make the Change

When you're done with an email, take two seconds to think about if you might want to have access to it again in the future. If no: Time to delete. If yes: Archive or file away!

Mistake #3: Using Your Inbox as a To-Do List

For people who don't love to-do lists, an easy solution (or so they think) is to use their inbox as one. Now, when it comes to standard email-related tasks like "Reply to Jerry's email about meeting times," I think those people are dead on. Those tasks shouldn't be on a to-do list at all, they should just be answered as part of the normal course of business.

But for true tasks, such as "Create proposal for new client" or "Pay office rent," I strongly recommend finding a to-do list system that works for you, and sticking to it. Why? Because if you want to get the most important tasks done each day, you need to be able to prioritize and focus your to-do list. Using your inbox as a to-do list puts your time in other people's hands. With each new email comes a new to-do, whether your like it or not. But having to consciously add a task to your to-do list is a chance to determine if you should really be doing that right now, instead of other work.

Still not convinced? Jill DuffyLeo Babauta, and Jesse Garner all make excellent cases for this, as well.

How to Make the Change

Go through your inbox, and pull out any actionable to-dos. If that was the only thing making that email inbox-worthy, archive, file, or delete the email now. And OK, if you truly insist on using your inbox as a to-do list, try Mailbox, an app that can help turn emails into to-dos and get them out of your inbox.

Photo of man looking at email courtesy of Shutterstock.