Pop quiz: how many messages do you currently have in your e-mail inbox? Not unread, just messages. Is it over 25? Over 100? Over 1,000?? Do you avoid even looking because you’d rather not know what that number is? It may seem like having a ton of e-mails in your inbox is an inevitability of modern corporate life, but it isn’t. More than that, it’s not effective to manage tasks that way. As impossible as it may sound, achieving “inbox zero” at least several times a week will help you to be more effective and focused, not just because of the empty inbox (which does have a lot of psychological benefits) but because it will force you to work with e-mail the way it should be used, instead of treating it like a to-do list.
E-mail is not the boss of you.
In ye olden days before e-mail, office documents would arrive in a physical “In” box at set times of the day. If you were a lucky executive living the Don Draper life, you had a secretary who would open the mail, determine what actions were needed, and then sort it for you. Even if you had to do your own opening and sorting, it is unlikely that you would actually take action on each item as you opened it. You definitely didn’t open items multiple times, either. This process made sense because the daily mail contained a range of items, some really important and some just junk. It would be silly to keep thumbing through that mish-mash throughout the day – just go through it once and then put it where it belongs. Right? We certainly wouldn’t let it pile up into a tower on our desk.
And yet… that is exactly what we tend to do with e-mail. Because we aren’t waiting for the 11 AM mail delivery, we can check it throughout the day. We’d feel pretty ridiculous walking over to our office mailbox several times an hour, but somehow clicking the Outlook icon every time we’re a little bored by what we’re doing seems perfectly normal. Even worse, some of us let the incoming mail interrupt us with a little chime, a flashing icon, or both. That’s the equivalent of letting the mailroom guy randomly throw mail at your face while you’re doing your work. Again, we would recognize the ridiculousness if it was a physical envelope, but because it’s electronic and appears on the device where we do our work, we don’t stop to consider how we’re squandering our time and energy on something that could very well be junk. Every time you look at your inbox, you are scanning the subject lines and making a bunch of decisions about what needs to be done for each item and whether any of those things need to be done right now. It’s really inefficient, and that decision energy (which is finite) could be much more effectively used on more important things.
Inbox Zero doesn’t mean all the tasks are done.
A common misconception, probably stemming from the way we use our inboxes as to-do lists, is that getting to Inbox Zero means that you’ve taken care of all the actions for the e-mails. That is exactly the opposite of how it’s supposed to work. The idea with Inbox Zero, which originated with Merlin Mann, is that you want to treat your e-mail inbox just like your physical mailbox – as a collection tool, nothing more. You want to use more sophisticated methods of determining what actions to take than just thumbing through your stack of mail every five minutes.
You can get started today, even if you have thousands of e-mails in your inbox.
First, you need to stop checking your e-mail throughout the day. Set aside specific times when you can actually process it, which is not, by the way, during a meeting in which you’re bored. During your e-mail processing time, you are not actually taking action unless an action will take two minutes or less, such as replying “Yes, I’ll be there” to a meeting request. When you’re just getting started with this process, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what will genuinely take only two minutes, so it might be better not to do anything.
- Go e-mail by e-mail, starting from the most recent. Open the e-mail and quickly scan it. Ask yourself the GTD (from Getting Things Done by David Allen) questions: Is it actionable (i.e., do I need to take any action about this)? If so, what is the next action?
- Add the action to your task list. If you are using a program that integrates task management and e-mail, convert the e-mail to a task, but make sure you change the subject line to reflect the actual action you need to take and not “Marketing Strategy Meeting” or something similarly non-actionable.
- If the item is not actionable, ask yourself, what will I need this for, if anything? If nothing, delete it. If there is a potential reason you might need it, file it in a folder or tag it accordingly.
- Get the e-mail out of your in box. If you need to take action on it, add the task to your task manager and then put the e-mail in a folder called Action Support or To Do or whatever makes sense do you. (Tip: put a symbol or zero in front of the folder name so that it will appear at the very top of your folder list.)
Very important note: The action folder is NOT your new to-do list. It is just a temporary holding place for the e-mails you’re going to need shortly to complete the actions on your actual to-do list. This is very much a situation where “out of sight, out of mind” applies, so you should not file anything that hasn’t been added to your task manager.
If it’s something you might like to read but don’t know if you’ll get to it, put it in a To Read folder. If you feel like you can’t delete the e-mail just in case, that’s fine. Just get it out of your inbox. You can put it in a folder called Archive or something more specific. The key is to get it out of your inbox. Just like you wouldn’t leave a document in your mailbox forever, file that thing away.
Now that you’ve processed your e-mail (or at least the most recent ones), close your e-mail. No, seriously. Close it. Even if your next task is to compose an e-mail to someone, you’re better off doing it in Word or Notepad where there is no danger of new things coming in and derailing you. Our brains are predisposed to like novelty, so you’re fighting a losing battle to ignore that new subject line appearing at the top of your screen.
Once you’ve processed your e-mail, you now have a list of tasks (in addition to what you already had there), and you can make good decisions about what actions to take first. What you’ll probably come to realize is that a lot of what comes into your inbox isn’t actionable, or at least isn’t as important as everything else you’ve got, and that’s an opportunity to start identifying ways to reduce the amount of e-mail coming in. You can do this by unsubscribing from things you never get around to reading anyway, setting up filters to have things skip your inbox, letting colleagues know that you don’t need to be copied on certain topics anymore, etc. But the first step is just to stop hanging out in your e-mail inbox all day.
Clearing your backlog isn't as time-consuming as it looks.
You don’t have to process every single item, especially if you have a multi-year backlog. Getting to Inbox Zero doesn’t have to be difficult, even if you are starting with thousands of e-mails in your inbox. Anything that’s over a year old is highly, highly unlikely to be actionable. If it were, you would have gotten follow-up e-mails more recently. So, anything that old doesn’t even have to be opened.
Here is a relatively quick and easy way to clear a lot of e-mail out of your inbox:
- Sort by sender. Or, if your program doesn’t allow that (one of my major frustrations with Gmail), quickly scan some of the older stuff for frequently occurring senders.
- Delete e-mails from senders that you know you don’t need, like any sales alerts, coupons, subscription newsletters that you don’t have time for, scheduling back-and-forth messages, etc.
- Sort by date.
- Create a folder called Archive, and move everything that is over a year old into that folder. If you tend to work on really short-term cycles, it might make sense to file anything older than three months into this folder. This may feel risky, as you aren’t sorting through the messages, just filing them. But here’s the thing: you didn’t have them sorted in your inbox, either. So all you’re doing is relocating them to a new folder where you can search just as easily as your inbox, only they’re no longer cluttering up your inbox.
- Each day, process new messages and a few of your backlog messages. Once you get the hang of not treating e-mails as tasks in and of themselves, it will get easier to quickly get things out of your inbox.
Once you get caught up, be very diligent about staying on top of it. There will always be times when things build up, either because life gets hectic or you’re out of the office for vacation or travel. Set aside time to catch up and process everything. It will help you to feel confident that you know everything you should be doing, even if you can’t do it right now.
“But e-mail isn’t my job!”
When I discussed this topic in a productivity workshop, a participant was appalled at the idea of Inbox Zero. “This would imply that my job is managing e-mail, not doing my work!” he protested. But that’s exactly the wrong way to think about it. We currently spend far too much time in our e-mail inboxes, and we treat e-mail as if it is our most important work. A lot of the really important stuff doesn’t show up as e-mail, though, at least not at first. The less time we spend visually “thumbing through” our mail, the more time we have to do significant work. And, I hate to break it to that guy, but e-mail IS part of every knowledge worker’s job these days. The key is to contain it and be better secretaries for ourselves.