I do a lot via email. It's the very nature of my job. After spam is filtered out, I get somewhere between 100 and 200 emails a day. With that kind of volume its very easy to get behind, and when you get too far behind on emails things fall through the cracks. I have, in trying to get caught up from time to time, found emails that should have been dealt with weeks ago.
It's difficult to get people to talk about this issue. Most just joke that you should simply delete all of them and the problem goes away, but it really does not because it makes you come across to others as uncaring and inconsiderate. When they are waiting on you and you never reply, they get frustrated. We are called to serve one another, not frustrate them. The other response is usually something like "I have so many emails I lost count years ago" and a glance at their 4000+ message inboxes shows you that there is no point in ever emailing them anything.
Neither one of those approaches is effective. In August I read Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky. The most valuable thing that book did for me was helped me to recognize the value of personal organization at work. I'm not the type of person who lives or works in a giant pile of clutter, but it was not uncommon for my email box to get away from me and find 1200+ emails staring at me on a given day. Likewise there was a stack on my desk of papers that needed attention that was beginning to growl at me in the morning.
After reading Making Ideas Happen I completely revamped my daily task management, and in doing so I began to break down large tasks (empty my email inbox) into smaller tasks (email inbox to 1000 messages) that I could put on a daily task list and check off. I also reorganized what I was working on so that what I planned to accomplish today was "above the line" and everything else was below the line. Now if someone calls and asks if I have time to work on a project with them, I put it below the line for now until I have the opportunity at the end of the day to prioritize it. By doing this I can keep my train of thought on the current issues in front of me. I also found that by doing this, when I moved the "below the line" items up I accomplished them much quicker than if I had just tried to work on them immediately because I was mentally prepared for what I needed to do.
That was August. Today is January 7, and for the first time in years I have exactly zero items in my inbox. It's blank. Empty. Nada. I keep thinking that my iPhone mail client isn't working. Of course, lots of messages come in throughout the day, but when there are only a handful, it is very quick to answer them and get back to what I was doing in the first place.
The other advantage is that I get back to people right away, and they appreciate that. By taking the time to be more organized, I am able to serve people better. I am more effective in doing what I have been called to do, and I can make ideas happen.
There is nothing special about my system, and it's not even described in the book I read. The funniest thing about it is that it is pen and paper. No mac, ipad, iphone or other technology needed beyond paper and ink. But for me, it works brilliantly, and today I am experiencing the incredible freedom that comes from an empty inbox.