How to achieve and maintain InboxZero

One of my employees recently told me that he had 2750 emails in his inbox.  I couldn’t believe it, no wonder he had problems keeping on top of tasks and felt “overwhelmed” at times at work.

Keeping emails in your inbox longer than they “need” to be there is the equivalent of having papers spread around your messy desk..  you brain has to either consciously or subconsciously scan those items every time you look at it and keep reminding yourself why you have it there.  This approach will lead to lower levels of productivity and increased stress.

Many people seem to think that “InboxZero” is some sort of mythical beast or perhaps even an asymptote.  The reality, however, is that it can be achieved more easily than you may think – with a pretty simple approach:

1. Do not use your inbox as a to-do list.

You need to change your attitude towards your email inbox and the first place to start is with its purpose.   Your email inbox is a temporary location for incoming email.. email, as in communication.  It is not a to-do list.  I’ve written on personal productivity before, you need to start using a dedicated task management / to-do list system – and not use your inbox for this purpose.. it is not designed for it.

2. Perform inbox triage.

Pretend that everything in your inbox will be deleted – automatically – in 24 hours..  so when emails come in, deal with them in a GTD sort of way and  “do it, delegate it, defer it”.  In fact, I would expand and add “delete it”.

  • Do it.  Respond to the email.  Answer the question.  Once you have done this.. get rid of the email.  File it or Delete It.
  • Delegate it.  If you are not responsible for the email – forward it on to the correct person.  Once you have done this, ask yourself if that is the end of the matter – can you abdicate the contents of that email to someone else and now forget it?  Or did you simply delegate the contents to someone else, which means that you may now need to follow up with them at some point in the future.  If you delegated, then you need to add a reminder to your “to-do list” system (Toodledo, Outlook, etc) to remind yourself to follow up on the email (in the task – reference the email – including date/time if you need to).  Once you have done that – file it (if delegated) or delete it (if abdicated).
  • Defer it.  Sometimes, you just don’t have time to look at something.  But that doesn’t mean you need to keep the email in your inbox.  File the email into a folder – either one dedicated to “deal with later” emails or even better, file it into something more permanent – employee folder, customer folder, etc.  Then – this is the important bit – create a task in your to-do list to remind yourself to deal with the issue (reference the email if you need to).
  • Delete it.  Sometimes the emails just need to be read and digested and require no further action; simply press the delete key.

3. Empty every evening.

Just like I discussed in my “Three rules for a Productive Life” post with respect to managing your to-do list, don’t go home without emptying your inbox.  Apply the triage above once again to your inbox at the end of everyday.

The American Management Association recently reported that the average US worker spends 107 minutes (almost two hours) on email every day – I bet that most of this wasted time is down to poor email management.  As I hope you can see, achieving InboxZero is possible and can be an incredibly powerful method to improve time management and lower stres.

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2 Responses to How to achieve and maintain InboxZero

  1. Anthony B Hopkins May 15, 2012 at 4:37 am #

    Glad I read this, it has reaffirmed my email clearing habits! I started about 3 months ago when I had to start running an extra 2 sections in my hotel. Emails were everywhere and seemed impossible to get on top of so I started with folders and I fell in love with the delete key! Must go and read your post on personal productivity now. Thanks

  2. 1MattHopkins May 15, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    Thanks for your comment.