Do you struggle with having a manageable email Inbox? Are you worried that you’re missing something important because you can’t keep up with the volume of email traffic you’re getting? Don’t worry, you’re not alone – and there’s an easier way to have less stress and overwhelm without being anal-retentive and that doesn’t require you to learn to be anal-retentive about clearing your Inbox.
I’ve written a lot about effective email habits, and I’ve recommended using the R.A.F.T. (Read-Act-File-Trash) method to process your Inbox. Over the course of time, though, I recognized some of the weaknesses of that particular method, and I’ve changed things up a bit – the process that I’ve distilled and now recommend is the S.T.A.R. method.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
- S stands for SCAN.
Scan your Inbox for senders and subjects. This step gives you a higher perspective of what’s in your Inbox – you have to know where you’re starting from and where you’re going.
- T stands for TRASH – as in “trash everything that’s not relevant, useful, or something you want or need.”
You may see 60% of the messages in your Inbox disappear from this one step alone.
- A stands for ARCHIVE, as in “archive relevant reference information.”
A lot of messages just contain information that you want to keep but that don’t require any specific action from you at this time. Archiving them clears them from your attention, and these may account for 20-30% of the messages in your Inbox.
- R stands for RESPOND, as in “respond to what’s left.”
This is the hardest step, when it comes down to it, as you’ll actually have to do more than click on a few buttons. But once you get down this far, you’ll have a lot fewer messages, and that alone may give you the motivation to start working through these remaining messages.
The other main difference between the S.T.A.R. method and the R.A.F.T. method is that the goal of the S.T.A.R. method is not to get to Inbox Zero – instead, it gets you to a much more manageable Inbox that lets you have the perspective to consider what needs to be done with your Inbox in the context of everything else you need to be doing.
Why the S.T.A.R. Method Is Better Than the R.A.F.T. Method
When I recommended the R.A.F.T. method, I was heavily influenced by the literature on home and office organizing. The R.A.F.T. method works beautifully for physical stuff, and two years ago, the volume of traffic sent by email wasn’t as high as it is today, so it was a great start at an effective email habit.
While R.A.F.T. is great for helping you get your Inbox empty, it is much slower. As the sheer volume of email messages increases, it becomes increasingly harder to actually get through your Inbox by using this method.
More importantly, though, the R.A.F.T. method doesn’t incorporate two of the best features of modern email clients: 1) the ability to see, almost at a glance, everything that’s in your Inbox, and 2) batch processing. When you’re dealing with physical files, you can’t see 80 discrete items at once, so you have to process them one at a time. And even if you could see them all at once, you could only shift them around one item at a time.
However, email clients do allow you to see many more items at once. And if you start from a more holistic perspective, you can see that many of the messages don’t actually require your attention. With a few clicks of a button, you can get rid of everything that doesn’t require your attention quickly, and everything left is something that requires you to do something.
So, rather than having to process and evaluate everything as the R.A.F.T. method recommends, with the S.T.A.R. method you can quickly get to just those things that you should actually be spending time and effort on. This makes the S.T.A.R. method much more effective and efficient.
Spend less time and energy fighting with your Inbox and more time doing other, more meaningful activities – give the S.T.A.R. method a try.
If you’d like to learn more about the S.T.A.R. method, check out Email Triage. It’s a product I designed that teaches you how to make rapid, effective decisions about what to do with what you have in your Inbox.
Thanks a bunch. My email inbox is normally really cluttered, so this sounds worth a shot.
Yes. I think of this difference every time I read an older productivity book.
First get the easy “check-check-check-click one button/do one keystroke” stuff out of your face, then look at what actually needs more brain power.
Ideally, automate as much of that no-brainer stuff as possible through use of filters and good anti-spam solutions.
Clear and simple. It’s a very good method you got here. Nice post.
.-= Yann´s last blog ..YannTessier: RT: @zen_habits: On Zen Habits: The Habit Change Cheatsheet: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior http://is.gd/3LrGw ~tips will help =-.
Mike Stankavich says
Charlie, thanks for giving a name and a process to what I have intuitively been doing for a while. You are so right – it’s a lot less daunting to get through the responses after you go through and eliminate the trash and reference/FYI material.
That being said, I have a low enough volume of email that I haven’t given up on Inbox Zero yet – I get to the bottom at least two or three times per week. For me, the worst thing about Inbox Zero is that it does tend to feed the email/twitter/rss OCD loop – when there are only a few messages, it’s easy to process them as a diversion from the important.
.-= Mike Stankavich´s last blog ..Short Sale Auction for my Previous Home =-.
Cindy Morus says
Using Rules to clear the ones to be Archived for future reference is a big help, too.
Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says
My problem is with needing time to think of a reply. I know that I should just tackle it, but sometimes I need a little time to process. A few hours goes by and I’ve moved on. I need a system to follow back up.
I do need to use the trash more often. I just let my build up and the more popular my blog gets the harder it is to control. I just need to get rid of the crap and focus on what is really important.
A wonderful method. Thank you! Very much needed today.
@bretthimself: Thanks for commenting – I hope it works for you.
@Dinah: I definitely agree with you about the check/clicky stuff. I suggest people be very careful with filters, as many people fall down precisely because stuff falls in those filters and hide away.
@Yann: Thanks, Yann!
Monday’s post will address this – it’s something I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. Hold on, Mike! (And, as always, thanks for showing up and adding to the discussion!)
@Cindy: Yep – but with the same caveats that I mentioned in my reply to Dinah.
@Karl: You might want to check out Email Triage, as it has some specific tips for how to deal with the problem of replying. But, in general, try chipping away at one or two every time you process email; you’ve already paid the cognitive transaction fee, so you might as well do something once you’re already in that space.
Charlie, I liked your point about how email Inboxes are different from paper Inboxes, allowing us to “batch process” what’s in there. I think that’s a really important change for people to discern. Getting away from the paradigm that expects anyone to Read everything in their Inbox is very important.
I’m still, however, torn on whether email Inboxes should be cleared AT ALL any more, and I’m quite sure all email shouldn’t be read, or even opened. I find myself more efficient just not worrying about it. I delete really obvious junk, but even much of the marketing email stays. I don’t necessarily read it or feel any obligation to, but months from now if I need reference material on a topic, I can do an email search and sometimes find a useful article or contact. Whether you prefer to leave this stuff in your Inbox, or mass-drag thousands of emails to a Reference folder, overcoming the need to “clear the Inbox” can be the biggest time-saver of all. Ask yourself whether it’s really worth even scanning many emails, or deleting them, with today’s excellent search technology.
A final but important point – your system doesn’t mention delegation. I work as an Online Business Manager for companies that literally hand me chunks of their business to manage for them. Entrepreneurs who aren’t good at communications, working with staff, or creating systems, simply have me do that. I work with some brilliant Virtual Assistants who can allow an entrepreneur to pass over their customer service, or affiliate management, or other aspects of their business they don’t want to do themselves. I think it’s really important for each of us to ask where our brilliance lies, and do our work there, delegating as much of the rest as possible.
That means I use the TRAF, or (more fun but less elegant) FART system for email and such. Toss, Refer, Act, File. This allows me to get that very important delegation step in the process. Notice there’s no “Read” step at all – it’s always part of Act or Refer, but not done for all steps.
.-= Karilee´s last blog ..Reducing Office Politics =-.
@Karilee: I’m with you about clearing Inbox – I think it’s at best a secondary goal, which I hopefully made clear in Inbox Zero is Overrated. And one of the main advantages of the STAR method is that you don’t read every message; instead, you scan for subjects and senders.
The system as mentioned in this post doesn’t mention delegation, but the more comprehensive product does in the sense that it would become a “Respond” message. In that sense, you can understand “respond” as a conversational prompt or a behavioral prompt, but delegation would be a part of the latter way of understanding respond.
I’m glad you have a system that works for you, though – that’s the important bit. So many of us don’t, and that’s what Email Triage tries to amend.
Thanks so much for the feedback and discussion!
Glad to see the Inbox Zero piece, and I know “the Loop” far too well!
I definitely recommend that everyone have/create/learn a system. It made a big difference for me when I was taught one. More time + less stress = win!
Yours is very reasonably priced and I think anyone who doesn’t have a system that works for them would benefit. I can tell from your posts and your thoughtful reply that you “get” it, and I like that you have enough flexibility in your approach to accommodate different personalities.
.-= Karilee´s last blog ..Are You Meant to Be a Manager? =-.