Using Inbox Zero to Change Your Thoughts on Email

Using Inbox Zero to Change Your Thoughts on Email

Several years ago I realized that my attitude when I got to work was often driven by my inbox. The number of messages grew every day and I felt that I was always getting burned by some email that I forgot about. I was tasked with giving a workshop on productivity and I began to get the feeling that I was the wrong person to do this. I had thousands of emails just sticking around haunting me and it was certainly taking a lot of time to sort through things, so what did I know about productivity?

It turns out I knew more than I realized, but I just needed a boost to get me in the right direction. As I was researching productivity, I watched a wonderful presentation by Merlin Mann that he gave at (of all places) Google. The presentation was about a system Merlin uses called Inbox Zero. (I highly recommend taking the time to watch when you have 30-45 minutes to spare):

Even though this presentation is from 2007, the concepts for Inbox Zero are relevant today. I shouldn’t just be collecting emails in my inbox, but each email should cause me to take some kind of action. The 5 actions that Merlin highlights are:

Delete (or Archive): This one is key. Email you don’t need to do anything with can either be deleted if you’re never going to need it or Archived if there may be a chance that you’re going to need it later. But the important thing is to get it out of the inbox.

Delegate: When you get an email that asks you to do something that someone else is going to need to work on, it’s time to delegate. Forward that email to the right person and hit the archive button. Remember, you can always go back to your sent mail to re-read it if you absolutely must. Oh, and if you say that you need to keep it around to make sure to follow-up with the person you delegated it to, I’ve got you covered…create a label in Gmail called “Follow-up” and assign it to those messages you need to follow-up on. Then get those messages out of your inbox. (And then remove the Follow-up label when you’ve actually followed up!)

Respond: A lot of email just takes a quick response. You need to answer a question or provide information. So if it takes less than 5 minutes to respond, respond! I used to read an email and then wait to respond. Why? I really didn’t have a good reason for it other than I just didn’t want to. Well, I got over that and managed to process email much quicker. The bonus is that people are really quite grateful when you respond quickly to their quick messages. Oh, and to get those emails out of my inbox once I respond I use a feature in Google called Send and Archive. I love it…no cleaning up my inbox of messages I’ve already responded to.

Defer: OK, there are things that really just not ready to immediately respond to, so it’s okay to defer them. I handle this by putting my “Follow-up” label on them and getting them out of my inbox. It may be things that I’m not sure I’m going to respond to or I’m just not sure what I’m going to do about. Instead of having it haunt me in my inbox, I put it in a place where I can re-visit it later.

Do: There are always emails that are going to take a while to handle. Often these are things that don’t just require a quick answer but are asking us to do something. Hence the name Do. This is where an email needs to become part of your To Do list. There are lots of ways that people handle this. You could label it “To Do” and get it out of your inbox, but you need to make sure you’re actually going to do it. I have recently started using Google Keep for to do lists. It is working out pretty well for me, but this is probably the 5th system I’ve used for this and I’m sure I’ll try more methods. In fact, I often find that my Do messages are the things that stay in my inbox until they are completed (usually within a day or two). This means that I sometimes don’t have Inbox Zero, but Inbox Ten is better than Inbox One Thousand.

One other thing that I recommend from Merlin’s talk is how to start when you’re overloaded with emails. You need to pick a starting point. When I started, I had about 3,000 emails in my inbox. I decided that things from the last week were probably going to contain things that we immediately relevant to me. I archived everything that was over a week old and put a label called “DMZ” (De-Militarized Zone) on them before archiving them. Then my inbox was at zero. I would use my new system for all new emails while spending some dedicated time during the day to apply the new system to my DMZ-labeled mail. Within a couple days, I had worked through all the DMZ mail and got rid of the label. All that was left was my new incoming mail to deal with. My stress level immediately went down when I came to work.

The final thing I want you to know is that by using Inbox Zero I’ve actually stopped constantly checking my email. I leave Gmail open in a tab all day and go about my work. I turned off any kind of notification for email and just look up at my Gmail tab in mail to see if I have any new messages. If I’m at a good stopping point to check email, I’ll switch over to it. Sometimes I wait for it to accumulate a little more before I check it. People get much better response times from me because I’m not constantly checking it. I’d say I’m in there at least once an hour. And I can focus a lot better on my daily tasks without having my email run my day.

If you’d like help starting with Inbox Zero, I would love to talk with you. Send me an email!


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