Strategies and Tactics to Achieve and Maintain Inbox Zero


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This article was based on episode 60 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.


Every once in a while I my own practices get out of whack. It happens to almost everyone, even collaboration or productivity experts. I know what I’m supposed to do, and for a while, I was very compliant. But then, something happens or maybe life just happens, and slowly, my good habits get replaced with bad ones and my intentional practices get replaced by haphazard actions.


That’s what happened with my inboxes. I had become frustrated that email was causing me stress and feelings of overwhelm when I knew I should be able to keep in under control. I’d started missing important emails or not responding within a reasonable amount of time. I didn’t feel very professional which led to even more stress about staying on top of my inbox.


But all that worrying led me to be distracted by email all day long, only making things worse.

I set out to learn more about various approaches to email management, design a new system for myself, and then give it a try for a few weeks. I was amazed by impact I’ve noticed–on my mental state, stress levels, productivity, and responsiveness–in just a few weeks.


INBOX ZERO IS A MENTAL STATE, TOO.


I was familiar with the concept of Inbox Zero, but prior to this investigation, I’d totally misunderstood it. According to the idea originator, productivity expert Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero is “a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty -- or almost empty -- at all times.”


But I only understood half the story. In addition to zero emails, it’s also about aiming for zero -- or as little as possible -- brainpower spent on email. Mann explains it as "the amount of time an employee's brain is in his inbox."


To achieve that positive mental state and clean inbox, it take specific strategies and intentional tactics.


5 PRINCIPLES FOR INBOX MANAGEMENT


Principle #1: Your inbox is not your to-do list.

I’ve known this best practice, but for so long, I ignored it. Not anymore. To achieve inbox zero, you need to address each email which means if its a task, it needs to get into your task list so the email can be archived.


Obviously this requires a trustworthy task management system. If you don’t have a system, whether digital or paper, now’s the time to invest in a task system.


Principle #2: Touch an email only once.

This was my biggest offense. I’d open my email on my phone any time I had a spare moment, yet most of these times, I wasn’t in a position to do anything with the emails I read. So I’d read an email and mark as unread, sometimes reading the same email two or three times before doing anything about it. Such a waste of mental energy!


To streamline email management, many experts suggest a 2-minute rule. (It could be 1-minute or 5-minutes depending on what feels right to you.) In essence, if you can deal with an email in less than two minutes, do it now. If it takes longer than that, make it a task or add it to a “someday-maybe” list. Personally, I save websites and articles to Evernote using their clipper tool.


This requires you to be in a position to deal with an email before you open it. Which leads to the next principle.


Principle #3: Schedule time for email.

I know the costs of task-switching yet I found myself in and out of my inbox all day long. Email had become an easy distraction from getting more important work done and in doing so, made it almost impossible to focus.


A number of experts suggested scheduling time blocks specifically designated for tackling email. One example looks like this:

  • First thing in the morning - check email for anything that needs to be addressed before 9am and respond to those high urgency emails.

  • Then, at 9am, noon, 2pm and 6pm - spend up to 30 min clearing the inbox.

  • Right before bed - check email for anything that needs to be addressed before signing off for the night and do only those high urgency emails, but leave everything else for tomorrow.


My personal schedule is more minimal. I don’t open my email until 10am which has made my mornings into the most productive part of my day. Now, most days, I get one to three hours (depending on my meeting schedule) of solid, focused work time which I spend on my most important priorities.


Principle #4: Take advantage of technology.

I love technology. If there is an app for it, I probably use it. When it comes to email, there are dozens of helpful features that your email system either already has built in or that you can get through an add-on app.


Here are a few suggested ways to optimize your email app:

  • Remind me later: Nothing is worse than having to remember to follow up when someone else doesn’t respond. Instead, schedule the email to return to your inbox at a certain date either regardless or only if the person doesn’t respond.

  • Snooze an email: If you can’t deal with an email right then, snooze it until a time when you can deal with it. This will pop the email back in your inbox at the date and time of your choosing.

  • Send later: Sometimes writing a series of emails at once is easier and faster than writing them one at a time. For example, write an email with a meeting agenda and prework and send immediately. Then, write a reminder email and include the attachments but schedule it to send a few hours prior to the meeting.

  • Email templates: For emails that you write regularly, create a draft that gets saved as a template. With a few clicks, insert the template, update the details or add a personal message, and be done.


Principle #5: Reduce the number of emails you get.

If you truly want to be efficient with email, get rid of as much superfluous email as possible. Between ‘junk email’ which you never read, crazy back-and-forth email chains, and emails conversations you don’t need to be on, we could all easily eliminate 10% or more.

While some practices are easier implemented as a team, there are a few approaches you can take as an individual.


First, get rid of newsletters you don’t read regularly. Either unsubscribe, move all your subscriptions to a separate email address, or have them automatically sorted into a “newsletter” folder. Check out Unroll.me and Sanebox to help make this easier.


Second, reduce the back and forth of scheduling. For group scheduling, try a polling app like Doodle. For one-on-one meetings, use a calendar link system like Mixmax or Calendly, that enable you to create specific types of meetings with unique links so people can book a time directly on your calendar given the parameters you set.


DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU


How you apply these principles will look different for each person given your preferences and situation. Regardless of what you decide, approaching email with intentionality will enable you to be more productive and less stressed throughout the day.


To help you implement these principles, the free miniguide contains questions for reflection on your current inbox management habits. The full guide for this episode, available to members of the Modern Manager community or for individual purchase at the store, walks through each of the principles and lists various tactics to help you design a system that works for you.


This article was based on episode 60 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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