Reaching Zero Inbox

Clutter. We all love it, right? Well, no.

What if you could unclutter your email inbox? What if you could create a system and rhythms that will leave your inbox empty at the end of each day? I’ve been working at this for the past couple of years and I’ve discovered a system that works. I can’t take credit for any of it – my process is a synthesis of advice and techniques accumulated from other sources. So because “sharing is caring,” here goes:

Create a “#Backlog” folder.

You need to find a landing place for emails that you will follow up at a later date. I recommend creating a sub-folder in your inbox called “#Backlog.” I add the hashtag to ensure that this folder appears at the top of my list of sub-folders when they’re sorted alphabetically. I’ll explain how this folder gets used later.

Consolidate all your task lists.

As I explained in a previous post (“The Task List“), a fundamental key to getting the right things done, is to consolidate all your task lists into one. If you’re the kind of person who has multiple tasks lists (or sticky notes), you will be hard-pressed to implement the next few principles.

Track your emails through your task list.

Do you realize that your inbox is a task list? You need to somehow fold your emails into your consolidated task list. Otherwise, you’re back to having two task lists.

There are many ways to do this. You could do it through Outlook. Any email you flag will automatically be added to Outlook’s task manager list thingy. I’m personally not a fan of this task manager – it’s not a very versatile system. I like a system that allows start dates and deadlines for tasks. So I don’t recommend this option.

A second option is to manually add each email to your task list (e.g. Follow up Ronald’s email about wall removal in Berlin). There are two downsides to this approach. First, it takes time to manually enter this data into your task list. And if you receive over one-hundred emails a day, it could get tedious. Second, it will take time to search for the email when you decide to respond to it – even if you put it in a sub-folder. But hey, if you grew up loving Hide-and-Go-Seek or Kick-the-Bucket, have at it! The rest of us will spend our freed-up time spinning in our chairs and eating avocado toast.

The third option is to use an app that enables you to automatically insert emails into your task list. I personally recommend using Todoist because it can be installed as an add-on to Outlook and is also available over multiple platforms. At the click of a button, you can add any email to your task list, and then prioritize and date it for follow-up. Even if you move the email to another folder, Todoist will automatically search for and open the email when you click on the task item.

Create sub-folders for filing and automation.

To create breathing room, create sub-folders in your inbox. Some examples of my sub-folders include: banking, education, subscriptions, consulting, finance, reports, receipts, income tax, staffing, personal development, governance, etc. These sub-folders will vary, depending on your personal and organizational needs.

Sometimes I’ll receive an email that I need to read, but am not required to respond to. I’ll give the email a quick scan and then tuck it away in its respective sub-folder.

I also receive emails that I do not need to read, but may need to hold onto for future reference. Rather than having them clutter up my inbox, I automate these emails so that they get sent directly to their relevant subfolders. Both Outlook and Gmail allow you to create rules that automatically take care of this for you.

I will admit that it takes time to set up these sub-folders and to automate your emails. But if you take a couple of hours to get it done,  you will create more time for yourself in the future. Short term pain can lead to long term gain.

Cancel your subscriptions.

This requires a moment of honesty. How many subscription-based emails do you receive in any given week? You probably had good intentions when you signed up for these subscriptions. But now you’ve discovered that you rarely have the time to even look at them. Some of them are important to you, and you hope to eventually read them. But there are likely other subscriptions that you signed up for on a whim, maybe because you ate a bad burrito. You might even have subscriptions that unexplainably appeared in your inbox and you have no idea where they came from (maybe there is something to this spontaneous generation idea after all?).

So…honesty. Do you ever read those subscriptions? You probably don’t. So why clutter up your inbox? Why create unnecessary guilt for yourself every time you open your inbox? If it’s highly unlikely that you will read these subscriptions, you’d be better off unsubscribing yourself from them. Most email subscriptions have a link near the bottom of the page that says “unsubscribe.” It’s usually in small print. Just click the link and follow the steps and Voila! you’ve just liquid plumbered your inbox.

Now, you if you have an important subscription that you may read from time to time, then I recommend creating a “subscriptions” sub-folder as well as a rule that automatically sends the subscription to this folder. You might even create a recurring task item in your consolidated task list that reminds you to read your subscriptions (or create a recurring calendar event). The key is to get the subscription out of your inbox and into your task list.

Use the “Touch It Once” principle.

I’m not sure who originally came up with this principle, but it’s brilliant. The principle is  simple: do something with every email you open. Your only options include respond to it, delegate it, or save it for later. But you only touch it once and you never leave it in your inbox.

Can you write a response to the email in less than five minutes? Then do it. Get it done and out of the way. Should someone else be following up on the email instead of you? Then send it forward to the right person. If you answered ‘no’ to either of these questions, then drag the email to your “#Backlog” sub-folder, add it to your task list, and set a more appropriate time to respond to it.  You might also send a brief reply to the person who sent it, letting them know that you will be responding later. And because it’s in your consolidated task list, you won’t lost track of it.

For a helpful explanation of this principle, watch this video by Asian Efficiency.

Conclusion

I truly believe that obtaining zero inbox is possible for most people. If you receive hundreds of emails a day, throughout the day, zero inbox might only be possible for an hour or so. However, the principles I have shared will still help you have a less cluttered, more manageable inbox.

If you put these into practice, I’d like to hear about it. And if you have other suggestions for email efficiency, let me know!

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