thinking in rules

Getting to Inbox Zero and Staying There

Jeff Key | 2/21/2017

The problem

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that your inbox is overflowing.

How is something as simple as an email inbox such a source of stress for so many people? Because it’s used as a to-do list, a reminder list, a to-read list, and a waiting-for list – combined – not to mention the mess of “other” email that seems to constitute about 90 percent of its volume. You know there’s some important stuff in there, but you don’t know exactly what or where it is. And it only gets more unwieldy over time.

Worse, you know it’s a problem but you just don’t have time to deal with it.

The solution

Thankfully the solution is simple: Actively determine which email is worth keeping and, for those that are, put them in one of four buckets so they can be intelligently acted upon when the time is right. That’s it!

Sidebar: Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a game-changing methodology for stress-free productivity. I and thousands of other people around the world use it religiously. Unfortunately, it can be overwhelming for many to set up and use reliably over time. This simple email-only method I’m sharing with you uses GTD principles, but is easier to set up and stick with. It’s a great starting-off point and I hope you’ll explore GTD if you find this approach useful. I put together a blog post about it that has been helpful to some readers.

Different types of email

Email typically falls into one of four categories:

Needs action

These are messages that require some type of action. It’s really that simple. It could be a request for a quote from a prospect, a friend asking for the recipe you cooked at the cookout last weekend or an email from your daughter’s teacher reminding you to pack her boots for the school trip.

To read

Most people are much better at subscribing to email lists than they are at unsubscribing and find their inboxes full of newsletters, updates, sales flyers and the like. Emails that don’t require any action, but might be an interesting read, fit into this category. Their useful lifespan is usually pretty short, perhaps a few days to a couple of weeks.

Someday maybe

Sometimes we get email that isn’t relevant at the time, but might be in the future. For example, a notice from a local performance space that one of your favorite artists is going to perform – in nine months. You don’t know if you’re available a month from now, much less nine.

Waiting for

Managers do a lot of delegation and have a number of items in flight at any given time. Oftentimes they’ll keep emails in the inbox as reminders that they’re waiting for someone to get back to them on a particular topic.

Taking action vs. processing

The number one problem with email is how people attack it: From the top down, taking action on each item. Consider a wonderfully empty inbox and its owner, Jane. By lunch, Jane has ten emails in her inbox. She starts with the newest one and opens it. It’s from her boss. An important client needs some information by EOD. Jane starts on it immediately, leaving the nine remaining emails in her inbox.

By late afternoon, Jane checks her email again and she has ten more emails. The first is a newsletter, which she spends ten minutes reading. The next is an email from the HR system, asking her to approve an employee’s request for time off. She thinks it will just take a minute to address, so she goes into the HR system and approves the request. While she’s in there, she remembers that she has to take time off for a long weekend next month and requests her own time off. After doing so, she goes into her personal calendar to mark the time off and sees that she needs to reschedule some meetings. You see where I’m going here. She’s processed two emails this time and likely won’t get back to her inbox today, leaving it with seventeen emails. This is just day one, and you probably get a lot more than twenty emails in one day. It just gets worse.

“Processing” an inbox refers to looking at each email, determining which of the four categories it belongs to, assigning it that category and then moving on to the next email. It is not the time for action.

Setup

I’ll cover the “processing” workflow in the next section, but first need to talk about how to set up an email client to work in this system. Thankfully, it’s very easy.

Create different folders for the types of email we covered above:

  • Needs action
  • To read
  • Someday maybe
  • Waiting for

You’ll also need an “Archive” folder. Some people delete all email when they’re done with it and others keep everything. Most people fall somewhere in between. There’s always going to be a need to store email that you’re “done” with, but want to keep around for future reference. Just in case.

  • Most email systems have a built-in concept of “archive.” Gmail has had an archive forever (“All Mail”) and newer versions of Microsoft Outlook have a built-in Archive folder. If your email system doesn’t, go ahead and make one.
  • Some people prefer to archive their email into contextually-relevant folders. For example, many people store client-related email in folders with the clients’ names. Use what works for you.

Processing

This is where the fun starts. After processing a few emails, it becomes second nature and takes effectively zero time. (I’ll discuss when to process below.)

For each email in the Inbox, determine if it’s actionable.

  • Is it actionable?
    • No, it’s not actionable. Do one of the following:
      • Delete it
      • File it
        • Put in Archive
      • Incubate it
        • Put in To read if you think you might read it in the next week or so
        • Put it in Someday maybe if you want to be reminded of it sometime in the future (weeks, months, or years)
    • Yes, it’s actionable. Do one of the following:
      • Do it
        • But only if it will take less than two minutes! Be honest with yourself.
      • Delegate it
        • Once it’s delegated, you can do one of the following:
          • Delete if it’s no longer needed
          • File away in Archive if you may need to reference it in the future
          • Put it in Waiting for if you’re expecting a response and would like a reminder
      • Defer it
        • Put in the Needs action folder

Congratulations!

  • You now have an empty inbox
  • Everything you need to do is in Needs action
  • If you get some spare time, To read contains items of interest
  • Someday maybe contains items that aren’t important now, but should be reviewed periodically
  • And Waiting for contains emails for which you’re waiting on someone else
  • You deleted a bunch of things that were simply taking up space and causing stress

Habits

The processing workflow is great, but it provides no value if you don’t do it or maintain your folders. Only three habits are required to make this a system you can trust and rely on:

  • Daily
    • Process your inbox
      • Some people do it once per day, while some do it several times. Everyone’s situation is different.
    • Review your Needs action items
      • What needs to be done today?
    • Check on Waiting for items
      • Do you need to follow up with anyone?
  • Weekly
    • A weekly review is crucial to maintaining your system
      • It doesn’t take long, but life happens and you’ll occasionally miss a week. Get back on the horse as soon as you can.
    • Review Needs action items
      • Is each still relevant? If not, delete, archive or put in Someday maybe.
    • Empty the To read folder
      • Items in this folder tend to lose value/relevance quickly. If you didn’t find time to read them this week, you most certainly aren’t going to find time in the next weeks when you have twice as many.
  • Monthly (or quarterly or whenever works best for you)
    • Review Someday maybe
      • If you want to take action on any of the items, move to Needs action
      • Delete or archive and that are no longer relevant
      • Keep those that you might want to take action on in the future

Implementing

So you’ve gotten this far and might be thinking “This looks great, but I have 9,364 emails in my inbox. I don’t have time to go through each one!” Understood. Here are a few ideas:

  • If you think you can get through all of the emails in your inbox, go for it! Grab a coffee, soda, tea, beer, wine or cocktail of your choice and get it done.
  • If you have too many, determine how far back you want to process. Be honest with yourself. Chances are, anything older than 30 days is stale. (The number might be much smaller for some people.) Create a folder called “To process” and move them in there. (Remember to delete it when you finish.) Once you’ve done that, you have some options for the remaining, older items:
    • Delete them.
    • Move them to Archive. This is a safe bet if you think you have a number of important emails that you don’t want to lose forever.
    • Something else. Perhaps you’ll want to selectively grab emails from important clients and process them, then delete the remaining. Whatever works for you.

Really, you can do whatever gets you to Inbox Zero. Once you’re there, start the habits above and you’ll be more productive and less stressed.

Finally

No system is a panacea. The one I’ve described may work for you exactly as I’ve laid it out, but there’s a good chance that it will require a few tweaks to make it “yours.” I hope I’ve inspired you to think about email a little differently and that you can take away at least a couple of ideas to make it less of a burden. And, again, if you need something more encompassing, please do yourself a favor and check out Getting Things Done.


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