Achieving the goal of Inbox Zero in 4 steps
Inbox Zero. The goal we all aim for, and which most of us fail to achieve. An empty inbox is a triumph. A tidy inbox is a tidy mind. Proof of your email excellence. Yet, it’s a battle that few win. When was the last time your email inbox was empty?
If you’re like most people, your email routine consists of continually scrolling through emails to find the next most important or urgent message. I suspect that you read some emails several times, while deciding what action is needed. This is wasted time, energy, and a distraction that destroys focus.
In this blog post, you’ll discover a clear routine to clear out your inbox daily, reducing the time and energy you waste processing your emails.
The benefits of an email handling routine
Every email sitting in your inbox is screaming for attention. It’s a distraction that drains energy, wastes time, and increases stress. The more emails you have in your inbox, the worse it gets.
One client told me the relief of having an empty inbox was similar to how he felt when he completed his first marathon. The more emails in your inbox, the more pressure you feel and the further away that finish line moves. When you’re on top of your inbox, you’re in control of your race. And with control comes freedom – you are no longer a slave to your inbox.
Yet the goal is not to have an empty inbox all the time. This is an impossibility. As soon as you have an empty inbox, in flies another email. The real goal of Inbox Zero is to spend as little time as possible in your inbox. It’s about limiting the amount of energy you spend on dealing with your messages. The email handling routine you are about to learn will:
- Teach you how to clear out your inbox daily
- Reduce the energy and brainpower wasted in your inbox
- Free up time for more productive activities
What is an email handling routine anyway?
An inbox is no more than a holding station. It’s a temporary stop-off point for emails that need a more permanent home. Like goods coming into a port, before being forwarded to their final destinations. They must be captured, logged and categorised before they can be dealt with. An email handling routine is a process to get an email from its temporary holding place into our own system, so we can then take any actions necessary.
Handling the emails in your inbox does not mean taking the actions required by them. It’s about reading an email, deciding immediately what needs to be done next, and then organising the email according to your simple email folder structure.
Perhaps the most important first step is to change your mindset. Instead of focusing on the actions required by each email in your inbox, put your energy into processing them. The following step-by-step instructions shows you how to do it. Instead of a marathon that continues forever, dealing with your inbox will become a quick sprint you win every single day.
Step 1: Read the email once
In our daily lives, we waste enormous amounts of time and energy by having stuff go through our hands multiple times. Email may be the worst offender. Therefore: Read every email only once!
When an email has arrived in your inbox, be ready to deal with it. Read it once, and continue with Step 2 below. That’s it! No more reading and re-reading. No more visiting the email time after time, as you decide whether it needs to be actioned or not (yet). It will be processed and moved on to where it should be. Already, your productivity will have increased.
Step 2: Decide about the next action
After reading the email for the first time, immediately take a decision about the next requirede action. Don't postpone this! Take the decision immediately.
There are only four possible actions required by any email:
- No action
- A task to do now
- A task to do in the future
- An appointment to schedule for the future
The no-action emails are the best. You don’t need to take any action with these. You don’t need to reply. You don’t need to set up a task. You don’t need to put a meeting in your diary. You simply move on to Step 4, detailed below.
Step 3: Organise your emails according to the next action
The routine of organising your emails out of your inbox depends on the action required by that email:
A task to do now
Anything that will take two minutes or less, do it now. It doesn’t make sense to postpone it. If you delay dealing with such a task, you will have to re-read the email again to refresh your memory. This wastes time and energy.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, developed the two-minute rule, which he describes as follows:
“If you determine an action can be done in two minutes, you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organise it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it.”
Don’t procrastinate. If it will take less than two minutes, do it!
Now move to Step 4.
A task to do in the future
Any task which will take longer than two minutes is a task for the future. You need to schedule this in your diary:
- Decide if you are the right person to perform the task. If you aren’t, delegate to someone else.
- If you are the right person for the task, create a task in your task manager.
- Describe exactly what needs to be done in the task manager, so you know exactly what you need to do when you work on the task.
- Copy (not move!) the email to the ‘action items’ folder if there is relevant information in it that you will need when performing the task.
Now continue with Step 4.
An appointment to schedule for the future
If an email details a meeting that you need to attend:
- Ask yourself, “Do I really need to be in this meeting? Will I be valuable to this meeting? Does this meeting support my personal goals?” If the answer is no, decline the meeting.
- If the answer to the above questions is yes, schedule the meeting in your calendar.
- Copy (not move!) the email to the ‘calendar items’ folder if there is relevant information in it that you will want to consult just before or during the meeting.
Now continue with Step 4.
Step 4: Archive or delete
You must always complete the process by either deleting or archiving every email. Do this immediately. You’ve dealt with the email in your inbox, so get it out of there! If you don’t, it will keep on draining your energy and your time.
- If you are certain you will never need the email again, delete it.
- Move it to your email archive if you feel there is even a slight chance that you will need it in the future.
- Never leave an email in the inbox after you have read it.
Where do you start if you have 7.457 emails in your inbox?
If you are like most people and struggling with the demands of your inbox, you’ve probably got hundreds if not thousands of emails in your inbox. One of my clients came to me with 7,457 emails in his inbox, desperate for a way to gain control. Here’s how he eliminated his stress and put into place the Inbox Zero routine I’ve encouraged from day one:
- Create an additional folder in the email archive, and call it ‘Old Inbox’, or similar.
- Move all the messages in your inbox to this folder.
- Create a task in your task manager to deal with your ‘Old Inbox’. Free up time which allows you to do the next step.
- Ignore emails that go back further than two weeks. 99% of these are outdated and no longer relevant. If an email is still important, the sender will resend or prompt you with a new email or phone call. By leaving them in the ‘Old Inbox’ folder, they will remain searchable.
- For emails that are less than two weeks old, treat as if they are in your inbox, and follow the Inbox Zero routine I’ve described in this post.
The Inbox Zero Email Routine – the game changer for handling emails
The most common mistake my clients make with their emails is to postpone deciding what to do with them. I make the same mistake myself. We’re all human. The problem is that if you do this, the email sits in your inbox, constantly begging for your attention. This drains your energy and wastes time. Plus, as new ones keep on coming in, the mountain of emails in your inbox keeps on growing.
The game changer is to decide immediately what the next action is for each email in your inbox. You’ll stop reading and re-reading emails. You’ll be better organised, better energised, and more productive with your time and output. So, in conclusion:
- Make sure you take an immediate decision about the next action.
- There are four possible next actions: no action; a task for the future; a future appointment; an immediate task.
- Copy the emails to your action items or calendar items folders as appropriate.
- Always finish by archiving or deleting the email.
- As a simple reminder, I’ve included a flowchart that outlines the steps in my email handling routine. Follow this routine daily – perhaps checking your inbox in the morning and in the late afternoon – and you’ll receive all the benefits promised.
The next post in this series will introduce you to reducing your email load, and how to cut the amount of incoming emails. In the meantime, for more tips on email excellence, contact me today. My goal is to help you achieve more, and be better than ever!