5 Steps to Achieving Inbox Zero

Inbox-ZeroUnless you live in a cave, chances are you use email as a primary method of business communication. You’re also likely to receive tons of annoying, non-business related email, such as newsletters, press releases, mailing list messages, and follow-up messages that clutter up your Inbox. Without a clear strategy for dealing with all of this distracting junk, valuable time is wasted on unimportant tasks, and productivity suffers. In other words, you may be afflicted with “email overload.”

So how do we deal with the influx of email that grabs at our limited supply of attention?  Merlin Mann invented the concept of Inbox Zero. From TechTarget, Inbox Zero is defined as “a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.” According to Mann, zero does not refer to the number of messages in your Inbox. Instead, it refers to the amount of time one spends thinking about his Inbox. A key point that is made is that when one confuses his Inbox with a to-do list, productivity suffers. Mann states, “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That zero? It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox – especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

So with the daily influx of email, how can we achieve Inbox Zero? Mann says that for every email message, there are five possible actions to take:

  • Delete
  • Delegate
  • Respond
  • Defer
  • Do

Let’s take a closer look at these actions.

Delete:  When a new message arrives, the first thing you should ask yourself is “Am I REALLY going to read or respond to this email?” If you’re not sure, then chances are you’re not going to make it a priority, and then it will sit there in your Inbox while other messages that should have been deleted come piling in after it. As Merlin Mann says in this article, “every email you read, re-read, and re-re-re-re-re-read as it sits in that big dumb pile is actually incurring mental debt on your behalf.” So if you’re not going to do anything with a message, simply delete it and move on.

Delegate: If there’s a message that can be best answered by someone else, then immediately forward it on. Don’t try to handle it if it will take you twice as long as someone else.

Respond: Immediately respond to any new messages that can be answered in two minutes or less.

Defer: If a message cannot be answered in two minutes or less, or if a message can be answered later, then move it to a separate “requires response” folder and reply later.

Do: Set aside time each day to respond to email in the “requires response” folder or respond to mail in this folder throughout the day when you have time.

Mann also recommends what he calls “Email dashes.” Here are his recommendations.

  • Check for new email & look for items that can be responded very quickly: Two minutes every 20 minutes.
  • Non-critical responses – Every 90 minutes, answer 5 emails or spend 10 minutes responding.
  • Processing “the pile” – Two minutes every hour, plus 15 minutes at the end of the day.
  • Metawork – 15 minutes twice a week.
  • Further culling, responding & cleaning out “the pile” – Throughout the day, when available, in 5-8 minute dashes. These email dashes help you prioritize, avoid constant email notifications, and manage your time and attention.

Other tips for achieving Inbox Zero:

Don’t leave your email client open. An open email client can be a persistent distraction. It could be too tempting to check email when you’re working on another project while your email client is running in the background.

Use templates: You can use templates for often repeated messages that may only require a short or generic response, such as “Thank you” responses or responses to common questions. If you’re using WorldClient, MDaemon’s webmail client, this article has instructions for creating email templates.

Use Filters: Filters are useful for dealing with frequent, non-urgent items that can be dealt with later. Some examples include:

  • Mailing lists and forum threads
  • Social media “Friend” requests from sites like Facebook and Google+
  • Newsletters and product updates
  • Blog comments
  • Twitter follower notifications

Be careful when creating filters to ensure that you are only filtering out content that isn’t important. It is possible to filter out too much – for example, important but non-urgent messages that would be better addressed by dealing with them according to a schedule.

Use labels or folders: This tip could perhaps be combined with the above tip on using filters. The idea is to automate the process of acting on message that meet certain criteria by applying certain labels or moving them to designated folders. For example, I get a lot of blog comments from spambots, so by creating a filter that filters on the subject of a comment notification message, I can send those messages directly to my “Blog Comments” folder. Sometimes, I’ll get up to 200 comments in a day, so this saves me lots of time and headache weeding through all of that stuff in my Inbox.

Unsubscribe from email lists: How many times have you been asked by a retailer for your email address, or left the box checked when making a purchase on a company’s website authorizing them to bombard you with sales pitches on their other products?  Taking the time to unsubscribe from these mailing lists now can save you from having to deal with all that Inbox clutter later.

The concept of Inbox Zero is not to have zero messages in your Inbox. It’s to set up processes that allow you to spend as little time as possible THINKING about your Inbox. Merlin Mann created the concept several years ago, when there was far less email and far fewer distractions than there are today, so his ideas are even more relevant today. I hope you find these tips useful & that you can use them to take back any control your Inbox may have over you.

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