Conquering Email: Zero Inbox

Last time, I tried to convince the intrepid readers of this blog to embark upon a truly daunting crusade: Taking control of email. Far too many of us find ourselves buried under a mountain of unanswered messages, unread alerts and unknown problems. This leads, inevitably, to email paranoia and frustration, where you have that terrible feeling of not even knowing what you don’t know.

This heartbreaking trauma is unnecessary. As I discussed, three simple steps can put you back on the road to email sanity. First of all, schedule your email in such a way that you can effectively process it – not every minute or every five minutes, but rather every thirty minutes or even every hour. When you check your email every few minutes, you might as well not use email, because it’s as immediate as answering the phone. Effective email management means giving yourself the time to process messages.

Second, respond promptly. Even if you don’t have an answer, let the sender know that you’re looking for it (and, even better, give them an ETA on an answer). You can defeat the negative effects of the “immediacy” problem with email by responding quickly with something meaningful, even if it isn’t the whole answer. And those clients that demand everything immediately and freak out when they don’t get an email response in 10 minutes? Tell them to call you. That’s what telephones are for.

Finally, increase the quality of your email communication. Use the spell checker and review what you’ve written, even if it takes a few extra seconds, before you send it (how many times have you gotten two identical messages, the second with “oops, forgot the attachment” appended to it?). Be brief and efficient; get to the point quickly. As you create less “noise” with your communication, you’ll see less back from your recipients.

Of course, some of you may have so much volume that these techniques only chip away at the larger problem of “too much dang stuff” in your inbox. For those of you who reduced your schedule frequency and still find yourselves staring at an overwhelming volume of messages that you can’t possibly process in the next hour, it may be time to resort to extreme techniques. These are the techniques I’ve recommended to people like Billy, a friend who had over 8,000 messages in his inbox. Be warned: They are extreme, but they work. If lifestyle changes didn’t provide a cure, it may be time for surgery.

Zero Inbox
This is an odd technique in that it is transparently obvious (and thus natural behavior) for many people but completely foreign to so many others. We’ve all pretty much lost the connection with the metaphors that were created when email software was originally developed, but let’s try to remember what an “in box” actually is: A place for incoming things to sit temporarily before they are processed and go their appropriate destinations.

Not too long ago, this was actually a physical thing on someone’s desktop that would receive mail, memos, invoices and so on. Even in the physical world an inbox could stack up, but never for too long, or you might miss a bill and suddenly find your phones or electricity cut off one day. Regardless of how well or how terribly you managed your inbox, you knew that you had to get things out of it eventually. In other words, the optimum state of a physical inbox is pretty clear to everyone: It’s empty.

For many of you, that metaphor has survived in some fashion, and you push things out of your email inbox and to the appropriate places as soon as you’ve processed them. For the rest of you, an empty inbox is some kind of crazy pipe dream for organization freaks and the obsessive-compulsives in your office.

Well, as a disorganized, procrastinating writer (just ask my editor), I can tell you that a “zero inbox” is not only realistic but almost mandatory for anyone who has problems processing email. When I mentioned paranoia earlier, I wasn’t really exaggerating: When you have a million things to do and you only know what half of them are, that uncertainty creates fear in your mind. For some, it’s just an irritating feeling that you’re forgetting something. For others, it’s a fear that clouds your mind all day: “What am I going to forget or mess up next?”

I can’t help those of you with true psychological issues, but I can tell you this: Emptying out your email inbox as often as possible will make your life easier. There are two basic methods for doing this. The first method is the most efficient but requires more up-front effort. The second is more manual work but handles every possible situation. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of both.

In both instances, you need to take some time and set up an organizational structure for your messages. This can be folders set up by client, or by purpose (“Bills”, “Human Resources”, etc.) or a combination of both. Take a little time and think about it, but remember that this need be no more complicated than a file cabinet in the physical world. You might even want to have a sort of secondary inbox called “Further review” or something similar for processing messages that don’t fall quickly into a designated folder.

If you want to have an inbox that largely empties itself, you’ll need to set up rules in your email program. These rules are simple to create: You tell Outlook (or your email program of choice; nearly all of them have support for rules) to take a particular action based on a given criteria. You may ask Outlook to take all messages from a particular domain (e.g. from anyone at “”) and put it in that company’s folder. Or you may want all messages with a subject of “invoice” or “payable” to go into an A/P folder.

This technique is superior for many because it removes manual steps from the process. And lest you be worried that those filed messages get lost in their respective folders, don’t be – your email software will highlight the folders with unread messages in them. That way you can get to the messages from those high-priority clients quickly and take a little more time to read the ones from the people who are 120 days out on their bills. The downside? You have to trust the rules you set up for this to work, and there will always be some messages that don’t fit into the rules you’ve set up.

For those messages that don’t fit – and for those of you that don’t trust the rules to do what you really want – all you need to do is move the messages to their appropriate folders, even if they’re unread. This takes some getting used to, but the advantage of having a message in the correct folder before you process it can be huge: It’s right there with related messages you might need, and you’ve already unconsciously assigned it a priority just by putting it where it belongs (see the good customer vs. bad customer example above).

The goal of all this, of course, is to get the messages out of their “temporary processing place” and put them where they must ultimately be. And the key is to do this in real time as opposed to a monthly or weekly “cleanup” task, because those kinds of tasks just get pushed back further and further until you have 8,000 messages in your inbox.

If you’re collapsing under the weight of your inbox, try this out for a month and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t then stay tuned for the final round of extreme techniques – including the controversial “email amnesty” – in next month’s column.

Reprinted from Identity Marketing Magazine

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