Inbox Zero

The Truth Behind Inbox Zero

wrote this on June 17, 2014
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A few years ago, Merlin Mann conceived the notion of Inbox Zero.  He eloquently described what it is we all want: to finally gain control of our overflowing inbox, and ultimately, our life.  The concept is simple; we need to aim for zero mail in our Email Inbox. Easier said than done, right?  How many people’s email inbox are really empty at anytime during the day?

But the fact of the matter is that there are people who are in control of their email.  They do achieve Inbox Zero on a consistent basis.  They look at email as a part of their productivity habit not as the bane of their existence.  Surely there must be common behaviors that everyone can utilize to clear their inbox, right?

Below are five “emails” behavior patterns of email users who were completely on top of their inbox.

#1 Be mindful of Multi-Person Emails

Emails that are sent to many recipients tend to get out of control pretty fast.  These emails, if not written properly, can get everyone commenting back and forth and pulling the email in their own direction.  One outgoing email can easily jam your Inbox with twenty follow-up reply emails.

So the first tip is a proactive one.  Especially, in emails sent to many recipients: be crystal clear about the message and expected outcome for the recipients, if any.  Consider adding an honest PS at the end of the email, such as “Call me if anything in this email is not clear or if you have any follow-up questions”.  If the email is well written, there should not be any follow-up emails.  If there are questions, then their clarification emails will most likely lead to more back and forth.  Your best option is to handle these “clarifications” by phone.

#2 Create clearly defined tasks, don’t rely on vague email subjects

No one can remember what happened a few days ago let alone a week…  People tend to read an email and quickly decide if they want to do what’s requested.  Many times, people read the email and, decide to hold off, and then move onto another email.  This not only creates a backlog of hundreds of emails, but does not provide any clear sense of what needs to be done.

When reading an email, even if you don’t plan on doing what’s asked for now; define a clear task.  For example, an email with the subject “Website mock-ups” could be more effectively written as a task with the following title “Pick desired Logo from the final two mock-ups”.

Remember the subject is what the sender thought is relevant.  Your task is what is important and makes sense to you. This way when you review your tasks list, you can better gauge when and what you want to get done.  The email will be part of your task, and most importantly your email is no longer in your inbox!

#3 Read once and make a decision

As David Allen describes in his Getting Things Done productivity method, your goal when reading emails is not to complete everything, but rather read once and make a decision.  People who have perfected achieving Inbox Zero rely on a pre-defined list of options when reading email.

By simply knowing the possible outcome of each email, it’s much easier to clear your email.  Most of us know the basics: delete, archive, reply.  But that’s the problem!  The emails that get stuck in our emails do not fall under those categories.  These emails need to be turned into tasks or relate to tasks that we are already working on.  Many times these emails could be the starting point of a project or actually be related to projects we are already working on.  (Tip – you may want to create a project if the email actually contains several tasks).

Successful “Inbox Zero’ers” have a system & method in place to quickly turn those emails into their task and project list.  There is no thinking (aka procrastinating) as to how to process those emails.  They can focus on reading the email content, and deciding what it is.

#4 Don’t organize in email folders, it makes you less productive

In case you are spending time reading emails, creating email folders, and moving emails around to various folders, you may want to reconsider.  Rather than cleaning your inbox, you are creating several more inboxes, just with different names.  All those emails most likely will have to re-read for reasons mentioned above.

Many people are surprised at the simplicity of keeping 4 emails folders: inbox, trash, draft and archive (or All Mail for Gmail users).  As noted above, if emails are tasks or projects or related to any of them, you’ll make the decision when reading the emails.  Once you’ve done that, the emails should be your archive/all mail folder.  Why?

If you need the email, you can easily search for it.  But most importantly, if it is related to a task or a project, it’s in the specific task or project.  No need to double-organize.  As noted, your email not only should be in the task or project, but it should have been defined as a clearly defined task or project.

#5 Speed Counts – get familiar with Shortcuts

Whether you are reading email on your smartphone or your computer, you must have quick shortcuts to quickly get those emails out of your inbox.

What shortcuts do you need?  Well, learn your email habits.  If you create tasks from your email, there better be a quick way to create a task and archive the email.  If you get many emails that relate to projects you are on, than there better be a lightning quick way to add those emails to those projects.

This step requires you to spend a few minutes thinking about the type of emails that get stuck in your inbox, and ensuring you have a shortcut to process them.  This way you can spend more time focusing on doing and processing your email, as opposed to fumbling with the mechanics on how to do it.

#6 Getting Started with Inbox Zero

I’ll leave you with a final trick to help you get started.  From my experience, the main issue with achieving Inbox Zero is getting started.  Let me explain.  Most people that don’t have Inbox Zero, don’t even try because they have 1000’s of emails in there inbox.

This article can give you the secrets of the universe; but let’s be honest, you won’t start because you’re not going to take two weeks off to process 1000’s of emails just to get started. Here’s a tip that has worked for everyone I shared it with.

Move all emails older than X days into your Archive/All Mail folder.  Get them out of your Inbox.  I know, it sounds radical, but it works.  When I started, I chose 10 days.  For me, emails that are older than 10 days are probably not critical for my day to day activities.  Remember, I am not deleting them, they are always a click away, and I can easily search for them.

Sure, during this transition period, you’ll have to go into this folder from time to time, but the need will go down exponentially as time passed..

Good luck!


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