3 (Quite) Simple Steps to Inbox Zero
Posted: Wed 28th Aug 2013
An empty inbox is more than something to boast about - it's an opportunity to spend more time on your business, and less time worrying about your e-mail. Here are some simple steps to clear your inbox and keep on top of it.
Step 1: Realise you have a problem
Put some time aside to work on your e-mail, but tell yourself you don't have to respond to any or email anyone yourself, as that's the hard bit. Just expect to delete and organise.
Delete first to see what you're really dealing with. Get rid of notifications, newsletters, spam and - sadly - requests that have simply expired. (We won't let that happen again.)
You'll be surprised at how many emails in your inbox can just be deleted, if you only face up to them.
Step 2: Get organised
Now you've deleted all of that redundant email, you'll have a better idea of what needs a response and what needs action.
Here's an approach we've mixed together from productivity gurus David Allen and Merlin Mann:
Create the following email folders (the '@' symbol is just ensure the folders remain at the top when alphabetised):
(Your computer already has folders for sent items, deleted and junk, so don't worry about those.)
With those folders in place, go back through your inbox. If you think a message would take two minutes or less to reply to, respond right there and then. If you think it would take more than two minutes, move it into the @Reply folder.
If an email requests a clear action that would take more than two minutes to complete, set up a to-do with a deadline and move it into the @Action folder. If it would take less than two minutes to complete, do it right away.
For those emails that are interesting, but not time sensitive, like reading an article or a blog post, move them into the @Some Day folder. For emails that include information you might need at a later date, like receipts, move them into the Archive folder. You probably don't need subfolders for those kinds of e-mail - e-mail search is pretty good these days - but it's up to you.
So, there you have it: Inbox Zero. Well, kind of. There are still lots of emails to respond to and action, but you'll have a better idea of what needs to be done next.
Step 3: Don't let this happen again.
So, the immediate next step is to work through your new folders. This takes a bit of time, but you don't need to do it all in one go. It's better to set up a system to avoid inbox overload in the future.
Your Inbox should now be considered a 'bucket', into which all of your emails go. Make a routine to process that email, whenever you check for it, into meaningful activities, moving messages that need a response time of longer than two minutes into the appropriate folders: @Action and @Reply, or @Some Day and Archive.
The goal is to reach Inbox Zero several times a day.
First thing in the morning, just process your inbox; at a separate time, work through your @Reply folder and, following a to-do list, work through the @Action folder, deleting or moving messages into @Archive when dealt with. If you have a spare hour, take a look at your @Some Day folder. But don't keep your email open all of the time. Instead, check and process around 3 to 5 times a day and dedicate time to reply and action.
After all of this hard work in sorting out your inbox, setting up a system and a routine, make dealing with email a sort of competition with yourself - try to keep your @Reply and @Actions folders under control and your Inbox at zero minutes after checking it.
San Sharma (@sansharma) is editor of the Enterprise Nation blog