I heard about Inbox Zero way back in 2008, but shrugged it off as something that other people used because they got so many emails and never replied to them. Here is a quick recap of some of the links that capture the spirit and reasoning behind Inbox Zero:
With the proliferation of all the “social” sites around these days (Google+, Facebook, newsletters, group buy sites, Twitter.. the list goes on) I just get way too many emails to deal with on a daily basis. So I’ve decided to be strong, cut what I don’t need, and most importantly create and stick to a procedural way of dealing with emails.
I did a lot of reading on Inbox Zero before I started on my quest. It’s important for me to be able to deal with 100% of the problem, because if it’s only 99% that additional one percent keeps creeping up .. and creeping.. and creeping.. until it turns into a problem I can’t solve, and I’m back at square one. There are a lot of blogs outlining various ways to solve the problem. There are games and plugins. There are rules such as “only check your inbox once an [hour|day|week]” or “if you can’t answer it in two minutes or less, don’t”. Which of these should you follow? How on earth are you supposed to keep all these rules AND have inbox peace and quiet?
I think of Inbox Zero as a framework with one very important outcome: everything is out of my inbox. There is no “hard and fast” way of achieving it as everyone is different (some people like to delete things straight away, but I just couldn’t!). Some people like to use lots of tools, but I like being able to do things from any medium, without a dependency such as a firefox plugin that becomes a bit of an excuse.
1. Have a process. It has to work for you. Do you get lots of questions? File them to answer them together. I get a lot of junk mail in my inbox, so I have a process to filter them, and I have set labels to “__1, __2, __3″ so I can sort them in order of how important they are to me so I read them in order. If a process isn’t working for you, change it so it does. Most importantly though is to stick to it. There is no easier way to lose your mailbox than by sabotaging your carefully thought out process.
2. Be ruthless. Inbox Zero is not about the “maybe one days”. It’s about making a decision about anything that comes into your sight. Is it something you need to action? Mark it, file it, job done. Have you received the same email newsletter every week that you never bother reading? Unsubscribe right now and don’t worry about it ever again.
3. Be responsible. If you are supposed to have replied to that email from two weeks ago that you didn’t because you can’t be bothered, make a responsible grown-up decision. Yes, I will answer it (Mark it OR action it, file it, job done!) or No, I will delete it – if it was important they will email back. This is the hard one for me, and Inbox Zero has helped me take responsibility for the things I may have just left to languish in a pile of unread email…
4. Email takes time. It doesn’t have to be a LOT of time, although initially the cleanup of my inbox was like spring cleaning after a long winter (I had thousands of emails to go through!). Once you get to a state where you are starting with a blank slate, every email that you see in your inbox should be important, and therefore you need to take time to respond to it. I find that with less email cluttering my inbox, I take the time to consider what I should do with a particular message, and put more thought into actions or responses.
5. There are always bad days. I haven’t had one of these yet, because I’ve just started being aware of keeping my inbox nice and tidy (and empty!). When I go overseas though I have no doubt that I’m going to lose track of where I was, there will be spam that I haven’t yet created a filter for, and things will break. I’m telling myself now that I will be patient when I see the overgrown mess in my inbox, and that I will take time out to tidy it up, update my processes (filters, labels, and so on), and return my inbox to that wonderful state of Zero.
These are my five reminders of how to keep my inbox clean. I think they are general enough for me to work even if I change all my labels and filters and even the email application I’m using. I’m trying to apply the same concepts to my work email which is a completely different type of email chaos – I need a slightly different focus, because my work depends on me being able to respond to lots of questions, whereas my personal mail tends to be handling of the occasional important email and mostly invoices and receipts.
What is your process for Inbox Zero? Do you operate along similar rules/ideas or do you have much more solid processes around what happens to each email? Let me know in the comments!