How To Achieve Inbox Zero And Unleash Your Productivity

How much time do you spend in your inbox?

Over the past month we’ve reviewed a variety of ways to simplify our email management and reduce email overload.

Today we look at how to achieve ‘Inbox Zero’ so we spend less time in email and more time being productive.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it was originally coined by productivity expert, Merlin Mann.

The idea was to have a simple, repeatable system to quickly process emails using five possible actions: Delete (or archive), delegate, respond, defer, do.

You can see Mann’s Google Tech Talk from 2007 here: Inbox Zero

Too much time spent in our inbox is distracting, time-consuming and ultimately unproductive. How can we expect to get much of anything accomplished if we’re constantly checking emails?

Now, there are varying opinions on whether ‘Inbox Zero’ is a productive email system or a pointless waste of time chasing an ever-elusive ‘zero’. I argue it’s the former.

Therefore, there are two important points to understand before we head into the nuts and bolts:

  • First, we must understand that ‘zero’ is not the ultimate goal. As it is a repeatable system, think of the ‘zero’ as a repeated target and part of the overall process. The ultimate goal is a clear mind that we’re on top of emails and out of our inbox as much as possible.
  • Second, we must be vigilant and limit the emails that land in our inbox in the first place. Otherwise, yes it would be a pointless waste of time.

Are you ready to transform your inbox and reclaim productivity? Here’s how…

Step #1 – A Simple Set-up

Create a few basic folders in your email navigation column, such as:

@Action – For emails that require an action.
@Respond – For emails that require a reply to the sender.
@Read – For emails that contain information you wish to read or review, but have no ‘action’ associated to them, e.g. an article of interest.
@Waiting For – For emails that require action, but you’re waiting for more information or a reply before you can proceed.

Think of these as ‘live’ or ‘active’ folders for work that’s actionable and currently in progress.

Use @ at the front of each folder title. This symbol will keep these folders grouped together, placing them at the top for easy access, as well as separate from any reference folders.

Start with these, add others if needed.

Step #2 – Make Some Rules

As mentioned earlier, not all email needs to show up in our inbox in the first place.

Be ruthless about unsubscribing to newsletters, offers and updates that are no longer relevant.

For any you do want but don’t need filling your inbox, go into your email preferences or settings. There you can create a variety of rules to direct low-level emails away from your inbox, into designated folders, where you can check them as and when you wish.

Don’t waste time sorting non-urgent email. Let your email client do the work for you!

It’ll shave minutes off your processing time.

Step #3 – Process Like A Ninja

Armed with your folders, and fewer emails reaching your inbox, it’s time to process.

For each email, ask yourself “what do I need to do to get this out of my inbox?”

Act quickly and decisively using the following options:

     Delete (or Archive) if not needed.
     Delegate to someone else who can handle it.
     Respond if it can be done under two minutes, in just a few sentences.
     Defer it to a designated email folder, e.g. @Action to address later.
     Do it now if the action is feasible in two minutes or less.

Once you’ve cleared all emails from your inbox, and it may take a while in the beginning, get out and work on something important or meaningful.

Process again at your next scheduled interval. Mann suggests once per hour, though a couple of times a day should be ample.

Close your email between processing, unless you’re in one of your actionable email folders handling tasks.

Step #4 – Adopt An Inbox Zero Mentality

  • Remember, the ultimate goal is to keep on top of our emails so we can spend more time being productive.
  • Avoid thinking of your inbox as your to-do list. Instead treat it as a collection point for unopened, unprocessed mail.
  • Processed doesn’t necessarily mean ‘done’ …Don’t forget to routinely check those actionable folders to work through tasks, responses and other follow-up.
  • Don’t get stuck milling around in your inbox. Attack like a ninja: take quick decisive actions until you hit zero. Then get out.
  • Think ‘process my emails’ not ‘check my emails’. As Mann suggests, make it an action-based activity.

Your turn.

Your assignment this week is to review your current email management system.

If it’s not working and you feel you could benefit from the Inbox Zero approach, begin your mission with the steps above.

What will you do today to regain control over your inbox and reclaim your time?

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