The Secret Hack to Organize Your Inbox like a Pro

Fab Giovanetti

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Do you remember the teen magazines that used to be on the newsstands twenty years ago?

(Apologies in advance if you were not born twenty years ago, you just made me instantaneously feel ten centuries older)

If like me, you were lucky to be alike in such an age of printing glory, you’d remember teen magazines filled with pops tart gossips, eyebrow-raising advice about your intimate health, and loads of quizzes and tests.

Will you marry your BFF? If you were a Spice Girl, which one would you be?

That was, by far, the favorite section of any given magazine.

Tell me something more about me

I seemed to desperately cry. Unsurprisingly, as a Virgo and a roaring type A, I was not surprised to find myself totally hooked with the idea of learning more about myself.

Fast-forwarding to twenty years later, and personality tests are used by employers to recruit new employees. In a way, personality tests are one of the favorite ways for Millennials to learn more about themselves.

We could even argue we perceive as if they give us a clearer idea of our strengths and weaknesses, something that empowers us more in the choices we can make and the way that we can better ourselves as humans.

Now, I am a type A, ENFJ-T Millennial myself, and I was quite a precocious child too, so I was all over any quiz and test I could get my hands on.

Most tests have seemed to point out to the same trait, again and again.

Over-achiever.

My blessing and my curse, I suppose.

Welcome to the monkey mind

“The common man is not concerned about the passage of time, the man of talent is driven by it.” — Shoppenhauer

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was perhaps the first to note the brain’s obsession with pressing tasks.

The so-called Zeigarnik effect (by which we remember things we need to do better than things we’ve done) stemmed from observing that waiters could only recall diners’ orders before they had been served.

After the dishes had been delivered, their memories simply erased who’d had the steak and who’d had the soup.

The deed was done and the brain was ready to let go.

Our brain is wired to work better when following a path, yet you can go too far. As an over-achiever, I have a few tendencies, one of which I would call the compulsive to-do list ticker.

You see, normal humans would pace themselves to tackle tasks and responding emails according to a schedule. I have been known for taking the preferential route of sprinting furiously towards the finish line.

The secret trick here is that you feel like you get a lot done, yet you feel like you accomplished nothing.

Welcome to the monkey mind. According to Buddhist principles, the monkey mind is a term that refers to being unsettled, restless, or confused.

In the days I gave in my tendency of being a compulsive to-do list ticker, I would end up doing loads of small tasks that were not really that urgent, and not truly focus on the most important task of the day.

As per usual (over-achiever strikes again) I use a combination of techniques to keep my monkey brain at bay.

Yet, there is one that I discovered a few months back and I religiously use to this day. Enter the magic of email folders.

Hacking email folders

All right, you got me, I am creating loads of pathos around these two, but for good reason.

In less than a week, I doubled my productivity — and all by adding targeted folders to my emails and start labelling my to-do list.

They work like a charm. My favourite folders include "Today", "To respond", "Read later". You can go ahead and create a “This month” folder. I won’t judge. Much.

To me, those folders are represented by my inbox and my to-do list.

This folder method combines two techniques: the batching technique, and the time-blocking technique (something I mention when talking about my prime time).

This technique is something that has been used by different productivity coaches and authors alike, and for good reason.

The way I give it my spin is by creating a dynamic approach to it and adapting it to different areas of my work.

I think it was Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable who suggested to only look at one email twice — the first time, to label it, and the second to respond and archive it. I could not agree more.

The 'labelling email' method

I first applied the approach to my emails and created a selection majestic labels in my inbox.

Whenever I open my emails in the morning (usually after my two hours of uninterrupted work), I start coding my emails (as well as responding to anything urgent pronto).

My only rule is to respond to anything that requires less than 5 minutes to write/check/ implement. If it requires more than that, then it falls into the “Today” folder.

If instead, I feel like it’s something that could wait until the Friday of the week, I push it to “To respond”.

I then batch time to check my emails twice per day (this is still something I am working on, as it’s the hardest part). At the end of the day, I also make sure I check my “Today” folder to adjust any outstanding email and peak in the "To respond" to assess what I could tackle.

Bye-bye, inbox mess. Hello, Nirvana.

Where else can you apply labels to better organise your life?

Okay, to be completely honest, my Asana account is not really a two-folder sort of system. Yet, in my to-do, you’ll still see a “This week” folder.

In order to prioritise, I make sure I select anything from the "This week" label and assign a date to it throughout the week.

I still have some tasks set for a specific deadline, however, instead of furiously adding a deadline to everything (I have been known for adding respond to WhatsApp message as a task before), I add anything that needs to be done at some point in the week to a label called (spoiler alert) “This Week”.

I tried creating a section for it, or a board-specific from my to-dos for the week.

However, having a label allows me to have different to-dos coordinated with my team for Creative Impact, whilst still have a section just for my writing, workshops and speaking gigs.

Each morning, I check my planner to see what is the big focus of the day.

I spend my first two hours doing that (whether it’s working on an upcoming course, workshop or writing).

After that, I prioritize the 2/3 today tasks lying on my to-do.

I also have a daily “batch admin” task with loads of small admin bits, which I do in another focused period of time, just like I’d do my inbox management.

At the end of the day, I head back to my Asana to check what else was planned for the week and prepare my “Today” list for the following day.

Final thoughts

”Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent, and not enough time on what is important.” — Steven Covey

Overall, the approach is based on nothing more than labels. Yet, when it comes to psychology, they can help us greatly work with our brain. A recent study by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety.

The pair observed that people underperform on a task when they are unable to finish a warm-up activity that would usually precede it.

However, when participants were allowed to make and note down concrete plans to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the next task substantially improved.

As Bechman notes:

“Simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective.”

Helping your brain recognise what truly is a priority can be what completely shifts your perception towards your daily workload.

Making the time to explore that can have a ripple effect on your overall strategy.

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