Why you should give “inbox to zero” a try

Nick IngramThinking2 Comments

This is the start of an occasional series of posts on “new year’s resolutions to help you think more clearly”. Over the next two months, every now and then, I’ll do my weekly post on a technique for thinking clearly. If you like the technique, you may want to adopt it as one of your new year’s resolutions for 2016. One of the reasons, I suspect, that 25% of people drop their new year’s resolutions after the first week of January is because they don’t spend enough time thinking about them beforehand. So let’s create the time for thinking, by planning for 2016 while there’s still a bit of 2015 left.

My experience with “inbox to zero” this year

You’ve probably heard about email “inbox to zero”. This was one of my new year’s resolutions in 2015, and I’ve managed to maintain it most days this year. (Not always, and last week was unusually difficult with lots of work travel and evening commitments – but I’m not beating myself up – it’s a guideline, not a rule!). So what is “inbox to zero”? Well it’s as simple as it is intimidating. The idea is to make sure that your inbox has zero emails in it by the end of the day. Note I didn’t say zero unread emails. I said zero emails. Period. By the end of every day.

The theory is that a clean inbox creates a number of benefits:

  1. You are more likely to be able to achieve “flow” in your work, if you are not feeling the pull of multiple demands on your time from a messy inbox.
  2. You are more likely to feel in control of your work if you have processed all the demands on your time from your email inbox.
  3. You are more likely to be able to focus on your own priorities if you can conquer you inbox.

This last benefit is really important. Remember, email represents other people’s priorities and calls on your time, not your own.

Remember, email represents other people’s priorities and calls on your time, not your own.

And by and large, I’ve found those benefits to be true this year. When I have been on top of my inbox I have been able to achieve flow more often, feel like I am in control, and focus on the important priorities to me and my business.

How to start

So, how to start on inbox to zero? Well, if you are like I was at the start, you’ve got a bucket-load of emails in your inbox that have been sitting there forever. There are a few options for dealing with this pile, some more useful than others.

On the less useful front, some people declare email bankruptcy. They shut down their account with the ten thousand unactioned emails in it and walk away into the sunlit uplands of a no email life. If you can do that, good luck to you! However, I suspect that you still want to live in the modern world, and I’m afraid email still remains the best method of asynchronous communication there is.

You may want to declare a more moderate form of email bankruptcy – and basically archive all the emails past a certain date. Put them in a folder (marked “guilty archive” if you like). If people really needed you to do them, they’ll come back and find you. Or, better, email everyone and tell them you’ve archived old emails.

Of course, the better way to get a start is to carve out a time and focus on getting through all the emails. Set aside half a day and get to it, and be ruthless. Some of the techniques I’ll be discussing below for maintaining a clean inbox can come into play at this point.

At some point in this process, my guess is that you will come across one or two emails in this pile that you are really guilt-ridden about. You should have replied to them ages ago and you didn’t. And now it just seems awkward. And the longer you’ve left it the more awkward it’s got. And now you’re kind of in this crazy guilt cycle. What to do? Well, you could wait for April 30th next year – email debt forgiveness day. But my suggestion is to do one of two things:

  • Either, stop reading this post and reply to that email right now. Yes now. Come back later – we’ll still be here. Just do it now.
  • Or, give in and delete it – and we’ll never mention it again. Either way, just get out of that guilt cycle, it’s not helping you or anyone.

How to continue

Now that you’ve got a clean inbox, how are you going to maintain it?

Well the foundational principle of inbox to zero is that your inbox is the basic processing point for your email. You should decide what to do with that email immediately, and once you have decided the email should be moved or deleted. (More on this in a second).

Here is a basic overview of maintaining inbox to zero.

  1. Set aside two periods a day to deal with email. One in the middle of the day and one at the end. Focus on email only at these times. Treat it as you would any other work commitment.
  2. Process every email only once. Do not let yourself leave an email you’ve opened in your inbox. When you open it you have to do something with it.
  3. When you open an email do one of four things:
    • Do it now – ie respond to it immediately, then archive it. Generally you should respond to it immediately if it will take you fewer than two minutes.
    • Delegate it – send it on to one of your team. (Make a note in your to-do app or calendar if you think you will need to follow them up).
    • Delete it – read it, or not, and delete it. Or save it in a folder for later reference – I’ll talk more about this in a sec.
    • Decide when – if you can’t action it immediately, or delete or delegate it, decide when you are going to do it. Make a note in your to-do list and / or on your calendar and put the email in a “To Do” folder – or another folder – so you can find it again later. You should still remove it from your inbox. You’re now tracking it with your to-do list, not with your inbox.
  4. If the email is something you want to read later, for example a subscription email to a website you like, or a newsletter, you may want to create a “To Read” folder, and catch up with the email on the train or plane, or after dinner. I find this using a “To Read” folder OK, but it can quickly get on top of you. I’ll talk about subscription reading below in more detail.
  5. Once your inbox is clean for the day – lean back and enjoy the feeling of peace and serenity.

Some thoughts on subscription emails

If you’re like me you subscribe to a lot of blogs, LinkedIn groups, newsletters etc. And a lot of these are important to your work or other interests. You wouldn’t want to be without them. How do you deal with these longer form emails?

Well, the first question to ask is do you really need the update via email? There are other ways of staying across blogs for example. You could, for example subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed and read updates in a feed reader. I use Feeder on my iPhone and iPad as my feed reader (after they shut down Google Reader). But to be honest, I don’t look at my feed reader nearly as often as my email, and I have discovered that getting emails from the blogs I follow works really well.

The secret, however, is to be really disciplined. I use the following process:

  1. I scan the email when I open it.
  2. If I have time and it looks interesting I read it then and there. I find this works really well – it means I am actually reading more stuff than I used to because I am making the time “in the moment”.
  3. If I don’t have time, I put it in the “To Read” folder if it looks interesting (otherwise I delete it). And I try to make sure I come back to it later in the day.
  4. If I don’t want to read it yet – but I know in the future I would like to refer back to it – I store the email in Evernote. I also store it in Evernote if I’ve read it and I want to keep it. Evernote is great because everything becomes find-able really easily. And you can apply tags. So for example, if I have an email on creativity that I think would be a good kernel for a blog post, I flick it to Evernote with the tags “blog” and “creativity” – that way I can always find it again. In this way I rely less on my email system to store information and more on Evernote to do it.

Some bad habits to avoid

In all of this, though, there are some bad habits to avoid.

  1. Don’t start the day with email. Lots of people I read say you should start the day with your hardest and / or your most important task. If you’re like me – a morning person – this is even more important. If you can get the most important task done for the day before you open your inbox, you will have a sense of achievement and you will have been very tangibly working on your own priorities, not someone else’s.
  2. Don’t get obsessive and respond to every email as soon as it comes in. Remember, the test of inbox to zero is zero emails at day’s end. If you get obsessive and respond every time a new email comes in you will never achieve productivity, flow, or clear thinking. To that end turn off you email alerts. All of them. Including the little outlook envelope indicator that says you have unread emails. You should only be looking at email during your two defined periods in the day.

This is a guideline – not a rule

Remember, this is a guideline not a rule. If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. Studies show that the worst thing you can do is beat yourself up when you are starting a new habit. Instead, make sure you understand that this is a guideline, it doesn’t have to be slavishly followed.

Over to you

Do you follow inbox to zero? How have you found it? Do you have any tips? Please leave a comment below. And, if you haven’t signed up to my email updates – please hit the subscribe button on the top right. (Ironic, I know!).

2 Comments on “Why you should give “inbox to zero” a try”

  1. I struggle with email so I’ll have to give this a go.

    What do suggest about phone checking of emails in the evening/ on weekends? I do a lot of that but tend to only respond to or action urgent emails and others sit half dealt with in my inbox.

    1. Nick Ingram

      Hi Ana – I actually think phone checking is a good idea in the “spaces” in your day. I’m going to blog about this ext because it’s come up a few times in people’s reactions to this post. Your phone is with you all the time, so it is able to be there when you have a little bit of “down time” (eg waiting for the “walk” sign at the street corner). Instead of hitting twitter or facebook, hit your emails. Anyway – still thinking about this.

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