When Merlin Mann conceived the notion of Inbox Zero, he eloquently described a notion of how to finally gain control of our overflowing email inboxes with the simple concept of aiming for zero mail in our Inbox.
Recently, I was discussing Inbox Zero with someone who thought it was not possible to have a clean inbox at least once a day. They reasoned, that there was no way to be able “do email” for enough of the 24 hours in a day to be able to get to it all. So, why even try?
I know it sounds impossible but the fact of the matter is that there are people who are in complete control of their email. They do achieve Inbox Zero on a consistent basis. They look at email as a part of their personal productivity workflow, not as the bane of their existence.
Here are common traits these successful Inbox Zero’ers employ:
They only read an email once
Successful Inbox Zero’ers have a trusted system and a processing method in place to quickly turn those emails into tasks or projects. There is no thinking or procrastinating as to how to process those emails so they can focus on reading the email content, deciding what it is, and processing it.
Your goal when reading emails is not to complete everything, but rather to read the email once and make a decision. People who have perfected achieving Inbox Zero do this religiously. Never read an email and keep it in your inbox – this forces you to read it again sometime later.
Many times, people read an email and decide to hold off on dealing with that one right now, and then move onto another email. This is BAD because it not only creates a backlog of emails and you will end up looking at that same email at least one more time. Most likely, if you leave an email in your inbox you will re-read it several times.
They employ the Two Minute Rule.
If you can deal with the email in less than two minutes then just do it! You would be surprised what you can do in two minutes! It’s called the “Two Minute Rule” because if you determine an action can be done in two minutes or less, then you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it. This applies to processing email.
They create clearly defined tasks
When reading an email, if it is actionable and will take more than 2 minutes to complete, then turn that email into a task (or a project if it is a multi-action item) in your trusted system. Then either delete the original email or move it to your Archive folder. For me, I just forward it to my Evernote email address, delete or archive the email and move to the next email.
When creating your task, remember the subject line of the email is what the sender thought was relevant but not necessarily what you want to e the title of your task to be. When turning the email into a task it is important you re-write the subject line to something that makes sense to you and is actionable. This way when you review your Next Action list, you can better gauge when and where what you want to get done will be done.
They don’t organize email in folders
Over the years, many people have developed elaborate folder structures to file their email. The unfortunate result of this is rather than cleaning your inbox, you are just creating several more inboxes. Now, you have to THINK about how you are going to file that email and you have to spend the time actually navigating to the folder you want to file it in. Even worse, now all those emails most likely will have to re-read.
Instead, you should just have just 4 emails folders: Inbox, Sent Items, Deleted Items and Archive in addition to the mandatory Junk Mail and Drafts for Outlook users. Once you have processed an email you should file it in one big archive folder and then use search if you ever need to reference the email in the future.
Less is more. Inbox Zero is the most efficient way to process email. Period.