Inbox Zero: How to Finally Get There (and How to Actually Start)

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Inbox Zero: How to Finally Get There (and How to Actually Start)

My supervisor once shared a viral meme with the office about a common email dividing line

It’s true — where you put your time and attention speaks volumes about how you value your work. Are you interrupting tasks by obsessively checking email? Or are you neglecting the onslaught of messages inducing habitual guilt? It’s easy to lose control of your inbox. Luckily, it’s also simple to reach the bottom. These quick tips will help cull your inbox, prioritize new messages, and reach Inbox Zero.

What is Inbox Zero?

Lifehacker Merlin Mann pioneered this rigorous method for reaching and maintaining an empty inbox. The main goal of Inbox Zero is spending zero brainpower on your inbox, providing uninterrupted periods to get things done.

The simplest way to start practicing for Inbox Zero is to follow Mann’s five reactions to a new message: delete, delegate, respond, defer, and do. As you likely remember, we discussed this technique in a recent blog. Determining what to do with an email is easy; keeping up with your new system takes practice. Process incoming messages and consider what they mean to you. Eventually, you get quicker at liberating information from an email. 

Declaring email bankruptcy 

Mann takes care of incoming mail, but what about the thousands already hanging out in your inbox? The most daunting part of this process is clearing your inbox of unrequited threads. If you’ve lost control, virtual mentor Michael Hyatt suggests a fresh start by declaring email bankruptcy

If you have guilt about your 500-plus unopened messages or others complaining about your unresponsiveness, take these steps to achieve Inbox Zero messages in 20 minutes or less:

  1. Admit you have a problem. Always the first step — vow to take care of it.
     
  2. Temporarily go offline. Stop incoming messages so you can manage what you have.
     
  3. Organize messages by name. Pick two recent messages from each sender and answer. Do no more than 10 messages.
     
  4. Create a Processed folder. Limit yourself to one archive folder to avoid duplicated information.
     
  5. Move all messages to this folder. You have zero messages in your inbox!
     
  6. Delete unread messages. If it’s important, they’ll get back to you.
     
  7. Commit to zero. Now that you have zero messages, keep it that way. Process new emails regularly according to Mann’s five steps.

Best practices for staying on course

The easiest way to keep Inbox Zero? Get less mail! Adopt new email behaviors to keep your inbox empty:

  • Trim the fat. Unsubscribe from mailing lists you don’t read.
     
  • Respond less to receive less. Take care of actionable items, and only respond as needed.
     
  • Talk in person. If the same person is emailing ad nauseam, or a topic takes paragraphs, opt to chat face-to-face.
     
  • Defeat the bots. Set filters to automatically get rid of spam.
     
  • Don’t hoard. If you truly cannot delete it, keep a searchable archive of resources in one place without subfolders.
     
  • Now or never. If it takes more than two minutes, ask if you even need it. If so, put it onto your Follow Up folder.
     
  • Pencil it in. Schedule regular inbox maintenance and take 10 minutes to process new messages.
     
  • Value your time. Believe your time is important and respect it. Don’t rely on email for all communication or managing your work.

Once you’ve employed these strategies, you’ll see why managing projects is too difficult when relying on email. Email is meant for communication, so either go offline for creative alignment, or try collaborative work management software like Smartsheet. Move comments out of email to better assign tasks and control your workflow, with the added bonus of getting one step closer to Inbox Zero.

 

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