You Can Achieve Inbox Zero

Earlier this week I listened to Michael Hyatt’s podcast on “How to Take Control of Your E-mail Inbox”.  What he talks about is often referred to as Inbox Zero, which is code for how to keep email from controlling your life. If you’ve got the time, and you have 100+ emails in your inbox, I’d recommend grabbing the podcast – it’s concise, very well done, and very effective. If you’d rather read then listen, my own approach is closely based on the one Michael described several years ago, and I’ll lay it out for you here.

The ultimate goal of Inbox Zero is pretty simple – empty your inbox every day. Sounds impossible. I realize the notion of an empty inbox borders on heresy for the email packrats among us, but don’t bail out just yet. Email, left unmanaged, becomes a stumbling block to your productivity. It is an insidious way for others to inject their priorities in front of yours. As a test, ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • How often did you check your email today (include smartphone access during visits to the restroom.
  • Did you handle it (or try to) right away? What important things on your to-do list will not get done today because you did?

Somewhat ironically, email can easily become a productivity killer, but it doesn’t have to be. Unfortunately, our competence is often judged by how quickly we respond to email, so being responsive is important. The key to staying sane and productive is having a system that helps you decide what’s worthy of your attention Right Now and what isn’t. Try the following process for at least 30 days and see what happens.

  1. Pick two times of the day when you will empty your inbox. Only two times? More heresy. Process does not mean answer every email. Process also does not mean check. Clearly, you need to be on the lookout for email from your boss and clients throughout the day, but don’t get caught in the trap of answering all of it each time you check it. What process does mean is going through step 2 below. My processing times are 30 minutes before I leave for work and 30 minutes before I leave the office. That way I arrive at work ready to get started on my task list, instead of my email, and leave the office with a clean slate for the evening. I do sporadic checks throughout the day to stay responsive to my boss and time-sensitive business matters with clients.
  2. Keep moving and do not chase the rabbits. Many emails have a rabbit inside that wants to be chased Right Now. For each and every email, ask yourself, “Is the sender asking me to do something?” If the answer is yes, do one of the following:
    • Do It. If it looks like something you can do in 2 minutes or less, do it right now. You will appear responsive because…you are. And practice the Golden Rule of Email – if you can handle the response either in person, via phone call, or IM, do it that way. Don’t send another email and fill somebody else’s inbox, especially if the person is in the office right next to yours.
    • Delegate It. If you’re being asked to do something that can best be done by others, pass it on. Don’t feel as if you’re Passing the Buck, but rather that you’re making the best use of your time. Respond to the things where you alone can add value, and refer the rest to others.
    • Defer It. If you can’t do it in less two minutes, and can’t delegate it to someone else, add it to your to-do list with an appropriate priority. Resist the temptation to disrupt your schedule by working on it Right Now. Remember, no rabbit chasing!

    If the sender is not asking you to do something, then you can either:

    • Delete It. The “Delete” function in most email programs is often lonely. Ask yourself whether you really will ever need this again, and if the answer is no, simply delete it without hesitation. This is probably the hardest thing I am asking you to do, but remember, chances are good that if you ever would need it again, the sender or another recipient will still have it. Otherwise:
    • File It. Over the years I have tried using various folder schemes using dozens of folders to categorize email that I wanted to keep. I wish I had all of that time back. It never really paid any dividends because I always ended up using the email program’s search function to find what I needed. Today I use just one folder called “Processed”, where I file everything worth keeping. In fact, in Outlook I have a shortcut that moves an email to my Processed folder with one click. Outlook, Apple Mail, GMail, Thunderbird, and their brethren all have search functions that can easily find any email you might ever need to retrieve. One folder = no wasted effort.

  3. Use email rules for your opt-in emails. Besides the “Processed” folder, I keep a second folder for email newsletters, and any other communications I have signed up to receive. I then set up email rules to automatically move these from my inbox to this single folder where I can peruse them during my reading time. Apple Mail and Outlook make setting up rules extremely easy.  It doesn’t require a degree in Advanced Geekery, and is well worth your time to put into use. Rules could also be used to move any email you’ve only been copied on to a “CC” folder.” By definition (in theory anyway), CC’ed emails shouldn’t require your immediate attention, but it might be useful to single them out for review before filing or deleting.

It really is possible to keep up with your email. The small amount of effort required to put a strategy in place like the one above will ultimately save you time and make you more effective.  Not to mention the good feeling you’ll get from regularly seeing an empty inbox!

What other strategies do you use to control your email?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.