When was the last time you reached the elusive “0” in your inbox? No emails left to read or reply to. A fully clean slate. Or wait a minute: have you ever reached that goal? And should you even care? Besides, once you clear your inbox, it can take a few minutes for it to fill up again!
One thing we can all agree upon: our perception of productivity has become defined by how many emails we have replied to vs. how many are left in our inbox. But if the reason you have a lot of emails left is because you were busy actively creating strategies and having a thoughtful workday, then does the size of your inbox even matter?
Truth be told, there’s a feeling of accomplishment tied to clearing your inbox at the end of the day. And of course, there are tools to help achieve that.
Enter the “Inbox Zero” phenomenon.
The Buzz Behind Inbox Zero
The term and philosophy of Inbox Zero was originally coined by Merlin Mann, the founder and writer of 43 Folders, a blog about “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.” Contrary to popular belief, the “Zero” doesn’t refer to obsessively keeping your inbox empty at all times. Instead, it refers to “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.”
Email is harming our ability to do smart work — although it keeps us very busy. It’s hindering our productivity and it places the control of how you spend your workday in someone else’s hands as you’re in a constant reactive state. Some people even get anxious while opening their email, anticipating the unread messages lying there.
Psychologist and author of The Best Place To Work, Ron Friedman says: “The reason it can feel overwhelming to find lots of emails in your work inbox is that each message represents another demand on your time and another decision you have to make. Even deciphering a generic announcement about the office coffee maker requires effort, which leaves less energy for work that matters.”
How to Achieve Inbox Zero
Schedule email times & be militant about it
Keep your email program closed for most of the day, except during the designated times you set aside for it. A popular system applied by businesspeople is checking and responding three times per day. And if it helps, tell people so in your signature or in a scheduled auto-response, if you can (this is a famous tip from productivity guru Tim Ferriss, author of: The 4-Hour Workweek). This is a great way to manage others’ expectations and an efficient way to ensure you are giving your current tasks or meetings your full attention.
Touch It Once!
Don’t get into the habit of opening your email between meetings, reading some messages and then letting them sit idle in your inbox. Read and reply if you can, or if an email does require more thought or strategic action, file it away in a properly labeled folder.
This can be better explained in the following system:
Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer, or Do
According to Merlin Mann, follow the principle of Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer, or Do, when processing mail.
Here’s how it goes:
If it isn’t important, delete it right away;
If it isn’t an item you need to handle yourself, delegate it.
If it’s a task you can complete in two minutes or less, do it (send a reply, file the message, make a phone call, etc.).
If you need to handle it, but reading the message and completing the task will take you longer than two minutes, defer it.
Create Clearly Labeled Subfolders
Use folders and labels to stay organized and help you prioritize when deferring. Here’s an easy system to use:
Needs action or reply
Important info (includes all those emails that have important info to reference but don’t require a follow-up task from you)
Unsubscribe from marketing emails that don’t bring you joy or add value.
If you’re using Gmail, then plug-ins like Streak or Boomerang can help you manage your inbox and schedule emails (they have free versions for basic needs!). Streak helps you set up templated replies that you can use for contacts in specific groups and sets certain emails to resurface at a later date as reminders, so you don’t need to worry about them. Boomerang helps you schedule emails, so if you’re replying to a batch of emails, you can schedule certain replies to go at different times (i.e. in the morning of the next day vs. at 5pm that same day, when you’re actually writing the reply).
Don’t answer every email
This can be hugely liberating. If something is simply not a priority at the moment, archive it and move on. Don’t waste your brainpower. However, use your gut; you know who and what is priority, so assess accordingly!
Become An Email Master
In your quest to clean up your inbox and avoid the constant “Sorry for the delayed reply!” message, use the tips that make most sense to you. Hopefully they will help clear the clutter and help you take control of all incoming email, rather than letting those messages take control of you!