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A Better Way to Manage Email


Inbox Zero

A friend of mine recently asked me if I did anything special to keep on top of my email.  Most certainly I do and have used the same system for the last four years.  It’s referred to as Inbox Zero, and no, I did not come up with it.  You may be asking, what’s the big deal?  You check your email, keep what you want and delete what you don’t.  This seems simple enough, but this approach seems to lead to an inbox of email that is so large, it’s unwieldy.  If efficiency is the goal, this approach will not get you there.  

I Have Seen Some Big Ones!!!

I have seen some large inboxes in my day.  The largest one I ever saw had over 28,000 unread emails in it.  It made me involuntarily gasp.  How is that even possible?  I asked my friend what all those emails were.  He said that most he did not have to read and were from automated systems.  I thought to myself, “I understand that, but what about the ones you have to read?”  This doesn’t work well at all.  Before  I started using Inbox Zero, I averaged about 60 – 70 emails that would routinely sit in my inbox, only to be purged like once or twice a year when I was feeling frisky.  Today, I don’t have any read email in my inbox at all.  I can tell you that this is the way to go.

Tell Me More About Inbox Zero

This is a simple little system that only requires you to be disciplined to maintain it.  You have to say to yourself that you will only check your email a couple times a day, only more if your job ABSOLUTELY requires it.  When you do check your email, promise yourself that when you are done, there will be NO email left in your inbox.  Every email has a destination, a folder, it will end up in.  Once you commit to the time(s) of the day when you check your email and resolve to leave your inbox empty when done, you will fall in love with the system.

Why Only Check Email A Couple Times A Day?

Checking your email constantly throughout the day is incredibly inefficient.  Just about every email that comes in is a task.  Something you have to do.  Most of the time it is people just passing work on to you.  I am sure you have experienced days when your inbox of work kept you busy all day and you did not even get a chance to touch what you thought you were going to do that day.

Another reason to check your inbox only a couple times a day is because it can easily break your train of thought and work flow.  How many times have you been focused on a task when you heard the chime or saw the alert that you have another email.  This draws you away from your work and who knows when you will get back to it.  “I am a multi-tasker though.”  Multi-Tasking is not what you think it is.  You can multi-task jobs that don’t require thought, but as soon as one of the tasks requires thought, you are not multi-tasking, you are task-switching.  And task-switching is incredibly inefficient.  But I digress.

Commit to only checking your email once or twice a day.  I only check mine at 2pm each day.  I have a message in my signature that tells people I check my email around 2pm each day.  If there is anything more urgent, they need to call me.  This way I can focus on my work and only be interrupted if it is really important.  If your job truly requires you to check email more often, then do what you have to, but seriously question if your job requires it, or if you just think it does.

What Are The Folders You Mentioned?

There are only four folders when using Inbox Zero.  They are Follow Up, Hold, Archive, and Trash.  Every email you receive will end up in one of these folders before you are done checking your email.  Here is what goes in each folder:

Follow Up Folder

This folder is reserved for emails that REQUIRE a follow up.  The follow up can be either a response or an action that you have to take.  The email should not sit in this folder more than 1 – 2 days.  Any longer than that, then it was placed in the wrong folder to begin with or you have not done what you promised you would do.

*** Each time you check your email, you should review this folder.

Hold Folder

This folder is reserved for any email that you will need over the next 1 – 2 weeks.  You may need to refer to it for a job you are doing or a an action that you need to take over the next couple of weeks.  I put emails here that provide me information on tasks or projects I am currently working on.

*** Each time you check your email, you should review this folder.

Archive Folder

This folder is for email that you don’t really need anymore but is important enough that you want to be able to find it if necessary.  Some of the email from the Follow Up or Hold folder may eventually find its way here.  Just make sure you hold on to the things you never want to lose.

Trash Folder

The Trash Folder or the Trash Can.  This folder is exactly what it says it is.  Any email that you don’t need anymore, delete it.  It will go in your trash and out of your mind.  Some systems will hold trash for a while, so you may have to empty it yourself regularly.  Either way, this trash is history!!!

Here’s What You Do:

1.  Create three new folders: Follow Up, Hold, and Archive.

2.  When you check your inbox, process the emails like this:

  • If you can knock out the email, reply, or perform the requested action in under 2 minutes, knock it out immediately.
  • If you need to respond but don’t have time right now, move the email into the Follow Up folder.
  • If you need to keep the email for a project you are working on, put the email in the Hold folder.  *** Remember, you shouldn’t keep it there more than 2 or 3 weeks.
  • If you don’t need the email anymore, but want to keep it, move it to your Archive folder.
  • If you never need the email again, TRASH IT.

3.  Go through all your emails until you have none left in your inbox.

4.  Review your Follow Up folder and see if there is any you can respond to.

5.  Review your Hold folder to see if there are any you can put in the Archive folder or Trash.

A Few Tips:

1.  When first getting started, create a folder called Archived-CURRENTDATE and move everything in your current inbox there. This way, you can get to Inbox Zero immediately, and not lose any email.  Then you can review it at your leisure.  I did this about four years ago and haven’t looked at it since.  This works because if the email was really important, you can still follow up.

2. Check your email no more than twice a day, preferably just once a day. If this is not doable, that is okay, but I strongly suggest it. It will allow you to work on your work and not be bombarded by work other people are passing you.

3. Make sure you process your entire inbox using these guidelines when you check your email. Your goal is to keep it at zero. Stay on top of it, or it will pile up!!!

Good luck!!!

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