No productivity approach or email approach can always be followed perfectly. A necessary element of any good approach is the ability to adapt even when things aren’t going smoothly and you have to break the rules.
As we’ve been discussing with email, I recommend totally clearing out the working folders (“answer,” “hold,” and “read”) at least once a day. The importance of this lies in the fact that if you don’t empty them regularly, they are just going to become another open loop that stays on your mind (and you’ll fall behind).
However, one of the values of these folders is that they enable you to easily adapt to the situation when you simply don’t have time to do much email for a series of days. This happens to all of us.
It happened to me just this week. I just moved last weekend, and then immediately had to head off to a conference on Tuesday. This has made time for email very scarce.
In times like this, it’s OK to go a few days without totally clearing out each of the folders. In fact, in these situations the folders become almost more valuable. They enable you to still keep you inbox at zero (since it doesn’t have to take too long to process your email into them), and then zero in on the ones that are most important. You can then deal with the most important ones so that they don’t fall through the cracks, and leave the rest for when you do have time.
The important thing is to not let this go on for too long and not to do it too often.
That is so important that I’m going to repeat it: It’s OK to let your working folders build up for a few days, but make sure to get them cleared out again as soon as possible. If you get in the habit of letting emails sit in those folders for extended periods of time, you lose a lot of the clarity and reduction in drag that this approach brings.
I’m sitting here at the airport getting my working folders cleared out right now. Unfortunately, I had a ridiculously early flight this morning and with everything else going on just said to myself “it’s not worth it.” But the next available flight was 4 hours later — more of a delay than I would have liked. But the good thing is that this just opened up a window of time to get those working folders cleared out so I can go into the weekend back to normal.