This is an article I wrote for my students to help them get control of their inboxes. The feedback I got from my students, encouraged me to add it my Medium blog. So, here it is. I hope it helps you to gain better control of your email.
Current statistics show the average office worker receives over 80 emails per day, and they are expected to process and deal with those emails quickly and efficiently. Yet, this is not happening. There is so much work that needs to be done, email is checked in the morning then the day’s business gets under way with meetings, presentation creation, report writing and more meetings. This means emails pile up in the inbox where it becomes difficult to find the important from all the crap.
Enter InBox Zero 2.0. A concept built from the original InBox Zero as created by Merlin Mann in 2006. InBox Zero 2.0 adds a little bit more flexibility to the original idea.
The idea behind InBox Zero 2.0, like the original InBox Zero, is your email inbox is sacred territory. No email should ever remain in there once it has been looked at. You only look at an email in your inbox once and immediately decide what it is, what you need to do with it and where it goes. With InBox Zero 2.0 there are only four places an email could go. Trash, archive, waiting for or Action Today folders.
Two simple questions.
Ask yourself: what is it? And what do I need to do with it? Then, do it. Asking these two questions soon becomes instinct and will help you to make a decision in a split second. Once you get faster at asking these questions, you will find processing email takes no time at all.
This is obvious. If it is not important and it is not of any value to you, then trash it immediately and never give it second thought.
This is where you put emails that need no action from you, but may contain some important information at a later date. Examples of these could be product information updates, company newsletters or simple updates from your team members.
Your Action Today folder is for emails you do need to do something with. That could be a reply, or it contains some information you need for the work you are working on or it could be something you want to read later. If you need to do something with the email then, you put the email in here.
For emails you are waiting for a reply, you put a copy of the email you sent into a folder called “Waiting For” and check this folder at some point during the day. Once an email is replied to, you remove the waiting for email and place it in trash or archive. (This takes less than 10 seconds!)
Other Temporary Folders
If you are working on a special, complex project, you may wish to create a temporary folder to hold the relevant emails, so it is easier and faster to get to the relevant information. However, once the project is complete, you move the emails into your archive and delete the project folder. These are only temporary folders. One recent example of this was for my Christmas shopping orders. I placed the confirmation emails into a special folder and once the package arrived I deleted the email. This helped me to keep track of orders much easier.
The key to Inbox Zero is you spend a few minutes a day cleaning up and managing your email, and the rest of the time you get on with the important work you are employed to do. You should plan to give yourself twenty to thirty minutes a day maintaining your system.
Letting your email get out of control, with no best practices for managing it, leads to stress as you will always be wondering if there is something important hidden somewhere in there. By keeping a simple, managed system you will avoid unnecessary stress and will always be able to find what you need.
Almost all email programs from Google’s Gmail to Microsoft’s Outlook have advanced search functions. This means you no longer need to create separate folders for separate types of email. All you need do is place emails you may want later into your archive and they will be searchable as and when you need them. It is a good idea to look up the search formulas for the email program you use as this will help you get so much more out of your email.
Email does not need to be a nightmare. It is very easy to get under control. However, as with anything that needs controlling you do need to put in some best practices that help you to maintain the system. One such best practice is to get into the habit of always asking “what is it?” to every email that comes in to your inbox and deciding there and then what you need to do with it. Over time this becomes natural and you will feel uncomfortable leaving an email sitting in your inbox when you know it needs to go in to your Action Today folder.
Empty Your Action Today Folder Every 48 Hours.
It’s all very well moving emails in to your Action Today folder, but if you are not doing anything with them within 48 hours then your system will break down. You need to treat any email in your Action Today folder as important and must be dealt with. If you need more than 48 Hours to get the necessary information to reply to an email, then send a quick email to the sender so they know you are doing something about it.
If you are not processing your Action Today folder properly, then it will turn into another monster of an inbox. Don’t let that happen. Be strict with yourself.
The Two Minute Rule
Finally, if you can deal with an email in two minutes or less, then do it. There is no point in having these emails hanging around if all it will take is two minutes to reply. Do it and file it.
And that’s it. That is all you need to get your email under control.
To get things started select all the emails currently in your inbox and either delete them (a hard bankruptcy) or create a folder and call it “Old Inbox” and place them in there (a soft bankruptcy). Then when you have time you can go through it and process those emails. Doing it this way means you start with a fresh clean inbox and can let go of all that email stress.
To help you get started with Inbox Zero 2.0, I have created a pdf file you can download here (or just use the image below) as a quick reference guide.
I have an online course that goes into much more detail on getting control of your email. You can enrol right here.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century