How to achieve Inbox Zero every day

emailAs a manager I continually hear people complain how email is taking more of their time and that they don’t have enough time left for the important stuff.  It is kind of like complaining about the number of meetings they have to attend and then not having enough time for the important stuff.

If email is taking up a disproportionate amount of your time, then you need to do something about it. Take charge of your situation. Don’t let the constant stream of incoming emails take control of your priorities and time.

I assert that it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero rather than to keep any amount of mail that has been read in your inbox. I know this sounds counterintuitive to most people.  Ideally, you should check your email inbox three times a day and process it to zero.

It is interesting to see when people give demos or presentations with their own machines how many people have read and unread email sitting in their inboxes.  Some people I know have hundreds or thousands of unread emails sitting in their inbox. Even worse, many have thousands or tens of thousands of read emails still in their inboxes.

That is what you get when you check it too often, and don’t have the appropriate amount of time to adequately respond or deal with the email. You tend to just leave it there in your inbox. When you leave a lot of old and outdated items laying around in your inbox, your subconscious knows there is still something to be done and it won’t let go of that until it is dealt with. Additionally, now you have to read the email again at a later time to deal with it.

This is totally inefficient. There is a better way – Inbox Zero.

Let’s face it, it will be difficult to go from checking email continuously all day to every three hours or so. It will take effort to change your habits but once you get in an inbox zero habit you will realize it is dramatically superior to your old email processing routines and that will have ripple effects across your productivity, workflow, energy and motivation.

I can hear some you as I write this… “What about emergencies, what about my boss, people need me, what about the important project…” The reality is, over time, people will adjust to your way of processing email. They will learn to call, text or stop by if it is truly time sensitive.

The reason it’s actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at 1,000 is that you don’t waste energy dealing with any particular email more than once. The decision about the next action is still unmade for much of what lies in your inbox. In GTD terms it is still “stuff” – something in your world for which the action is still unclear. Every time you consciously or unconsciously notice that email again and don’t deal with it, it wastes energy.

Every single item in your inbox needs to be processed only once. If you need more than two minutes to process a specific email, you process it to your trusted system. In my case that is Evernote. When I am processing email and I run across an actionable email that takes more then two minutes to deal with, I just forward it to my default Evernote address.  That way it is waiting for me in my “Unprocessed” Notebook ready to be processed the next time I am processing.

This way I ensure that my inbox is always down to zero and that at least for a few hours I have that inbox zero peace of mind. Every day, my goal is to complete everything on my “today” list that came from my Daily Review and to process my inbox to zero. Then I can go home with the piece of mind of knowing that I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish and my inbox is completely processed and nothing is going to slip thru the cracks.

How do you maintain your inbox zero?
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About Michael Keithley
Digital Transformation CIO and Public Speaker. Previously, CIO at Creative Artists Agency

3 Responses to How to achieve Inbox Zero every day

  1. Pingback: Productivity 101 - an easy path to Inbox Zero | Social Score Media

  2. Went back and looked at Activeinbox for gmail. What a breath of fresh air to help me keep things under control. Having that time to process the email is important, and if you don’t have time during the work week, it’s worth spending a sunday morning getting caught up. I do this as part of my inbox review. I find it takes no more then an hour and leaves me nicely setup for the week.

    • I’m not familiar with Activeinbox but it seems to apply the GTD concepts to Gmail which seems like a fantastic thing considering how many people us Gmail. Sunday morning or Sunday evening, either way it is great to get clear for the upcoming week.

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