Jump-start Your Sanctuary of Organized Living This Spring (HOP Part 4)


When it comes to a home, would you rather live in an open warehouse of a studio or some place with some rooms and hallways? An efficiency studio or a one-bedroom apartment? Having been there and done that with a 10×15 foot New York City studio, I’ll take the latter.

Luckily, I live in a house with rooms these days, and I’m currently on a home-enhancement kick, making my home, even my office, into more of a sanctuary. I love the clarity of being organized, but even more I love how much calmer, lighter, and more centered I feel as a result. No matter what size your home, with a little help this spring and summer you can create a sanctuary of organized living and reap those benefits, too, starting with just five minutes of work today. Really.

Enhancing your well-being has always been the deeper goal of my “House of Productivity” series. This marks its fourth installment, using the metaphor of building a house to help you manifest organized productivity and well-being in your life. Perhaps I should rename the series “House of Productive Ease,” or HOPE. Done.

Today we’ll continue this journey by starting to “blueprint” your empty “house” (your work-time, workspace) with “rooms and hallways” (your system of organizing workflow). First we’ll take a fortifying dip into your personal home vision and then learn a quick-start system for organizing one of the messier parts of many people’s lives.


Have you ever seen a house in a movie, magazine or on a drive and thought, ‘I want my house to be like that someday’? It might be a composite of several places, but notice how you feel now as you conjure your ideal space for working, resting, and playing. Close your eyes and visualize the type of space and lines, the colors, textures and light you find especially pleasing.

Did you see mountains of clutter in your dream house? Or feel a sense of scattered overwhelm? I’m guessing no. You probably noticed a feeling of “rightness” inside, a sense of settled wholeness and ease that people (not surprisingly) call “being at home.”

Hooking into that felt sense of ease, stability, and completeness will fuel you to take the first step toward bringing those things into your actual home life. And as many sages have noted, the first step is the biggest. Take another minute now to envision it if you haven’t yet, and bask in that feeling of a peaceful, beautiful home.

Use this target vision and the resulting inner sense of wellbeing to motivate yourself as you begin to manifest this HOPE model of productive ease in your work/home life. Starting with baby steps, let’s create a system** to process and organize something you probably face daily but also ignore —— that ever-growing, overflowing email inbox.


If you’re like most people, the only organization set up in your email system are the folders (or labels, in gmail) that you create and store alphabetically in the navigation bars on the side and top of your email interface screen. You send emails there that you’ve already dealt with but want to save for future reference. And then you treat your inbox as a holding pen for ALL the other emails, incoming or old, that you’ve ignored, or read but haven’t dealt with, or have dealt with but haven’t deleted or filed/labeled yet.

The problem is, your inbox then gets clogged up with hundreds or thousands of these “purgatory” emails that fall into the forgotten abyss once they’re buried under a few pages of newer incoming messages. This can go on for, ahem, years. You need an easy system that lets you quickly channel the incoming messages to the right place (and handle quick ones), so you can get down to only one page of email subject lines or less. This is *actually* possible.


[Gmail users, see “P.S.” link below for free plugin GTD software]
To set up the system (in just a couple of minutes), click on the add (“+”) icon to create new folders (or labels), and make four: “-ACTION,” “-WAITING FOR,” “-READ/REVIEW” and “-SOMEDAY/MAYBE.” By using the hyphen symbol or a similar non-letter character, you guarantee that the folder or label will sit at the very top of your folders/labels list (the “+” and “=” characters work well, too). The CAPS ensure that it will be easy to read, making it faster to use the system.


1. DO or DEFER. Now that you have your four folders or tags set up, look at page one of your inbox. As you read the first subject line or open the email, ask yourself if any action needs to be taken to handle the email. The short way of saying this is, “Is this actionable?”

If it is, AND you are the one responsible for it, DO the action if it will take less than two minutes*; otherwise drop it into your “-ACTION” folder. This means you’re DEFERRING the action until you have more time to do it. (*This is called the two-minute rule; it’s a helpful guideline but you can adjust it to more or less time depending on your schedule.)

2. DELEGATE. If it’s an email that requires an action that someone else is responsible for, you DELEGATE it to them (by forwarding it with a request to handle it). Then drop the original email (or a self-cc’d copy of the forwarded email) into your “-WAITING FOR” folder (or tag it) to remind yourself that you have delegated it so you can follow up on it later. (If the request will take longer than two minutes to explain, put it in your “-ACTION” folder to delegate later.)

Using one of these three choices (do, delegate, or defer), you can handle any email that requires an action step.

3. READ or REVIEW. Now, if it’s an email like a blog article or movie review that doesn’t require action, but you want to read or review it and don’t have time right now, drop it into the “-READ/REVIEW” folder (or tag it).

4. SOMEDAY/MAYBE. Finally, if you come across an email that contains information you might want to act on later, like a notice for a concert next month that you might want to get tickets for, you would put it/tag it under your “-SOMEDAY/MAYBE” folder. You could also do this for emails about items that you might want to take action on like a book you may want to read, a class you might take, or places you may travel to.

And of course, many of the emails you’ll get on a daily basis you will just DELETE without opening because you know they’re not important enough to look at. (Hopefully that doesn’t include emails from me!)


You can start using the system right away with your next incoming email, and I recommend that you do. There are just two things you must do if you want this system to hit full-speed and function well: clear the decks and review your folders often. If you have pages of subject lines in your inbox, just schedule a block of time on an upcoming Friday afternoon when you can churn through several hundred or more emails and clear the decks. Put on some upbeat music, go to town on that inbox and take stretch breaks every so often.

Remember that you’re not actually answering or handling all the emails that come to you as you use this system. You’re doing the ones you can do in two minutes or less, deleting non-important ones, and organizing the rest into Action, Waiting For, Read/Review and Someday/Maybe to be handled later but as soon as you have time. So you must review those folders frequently. Check your “-ACTION” folder several times per week if not per day for actions you can take care of in the free spaces in your day, and review the others as needed, probably a couple of times per week at least.

I have a feeling that as soon as you start to use it, this system will save you energy, effort, and time, plus the icky numbness of inbox overwhelm. So feel into your vision and get started with baby steps towards it!

P.S. Gmail users, try this free, well-reviewd plugin for Firefox and Chrome that is specifically designed to help you organize your email using the GTD methods described above.

**Note: This email inbox organization system is part of the model of workflow management called Getting Things Done (GTD) developed by David Allen in the early 2000s. If you want, you can apply his model to your entire life —— from home to work to school and from the countless tasks of everyday life to the big-picture questions of existence.

We’re starting small today, but to continue, you can order a copy of his book of the same name by clicking here for his site.

I am also working on some short writings that can help you get acquainted with the system. Stay tuned!

One Response to Jump-start Your Sanctuary of Organized Living This Spring (HOP Part 4)
  1. william chafe
    May 30, 2012 | 5:46 am

    Brilliant set of suggestions. One of the things I try to do is open, respond or delete e-mails 3-4 times a day so my inbox never gets over 25-30. It helps to retain a sense of control over what can otherwise be overwhelming!!!