Email can belong to one or more of these five categories: Question, Answer, Action Item, FYI, SPAM. (Spam represents any useless email delivered to your inbox, from a colleague or otherwise.)
1. Question – If someone asks you a question, send them an answer, then delete the message. You can always find the thread in your Sent Items later, if you need to.
2. Answer – If someone answers your question, reply with a thanks, document or act on the answer, then delete the message. Again, check your Sent Items folder, if you need to refer to this email thread in the future. If it’s really important, move the email to a folder.
3. Action Item – If the email requires action (a new question, a request for an item or a service, or an answer) then take the action, or schedule a time to take the action, then delete the message. If the message contains important information, or attachments, then file it away in an appropriately labeled folder.
4. FYI – Much of the email we receive is of the FYI and good to know variety. If you deem an email important enough to keep, acknowledge the sender if need be, then file the email appropriately. (Appropriately does not equal putting it in a catch-all folder to be reviewed later.) If you need to save it, put it where it can be easily found when you need it.
5. SPAM – Way too much of the email we receive is SPAM. We don’t want it, and we don’t need it. There is little to nothing to learn or gain from it, so simply delete it! If messages received via a newsletter or membership aren’t particularly useful, then unsubscribe. If it came from a colleague that sends too much “funny” email, then kindly ask them to stop, or set up a filter for that individual’s email. The point is, cut off SPAM at the source whenever possible.
Like I mentioned, email can belong to more than one of these categories, and when that happens, it can make it difficult to decide where or how to file it, or what actions to take. There are several very good articles that explain in more detail how to manage and deal with email from day to day, but I found this one to be really insightful: Ted.com Blog – 10 Steps to tame your email inbox. There are several tools to help manage email, and I highly recommend checking out some of the ones listed in the Ted article.