5 Steps for Quickly Reaching Inbox Zero

Empty Inbox on a DeskEmail is the bane of our existence.  Sure, it’s awesome for funny cat videos, chain letters, and getting awesome blogs like this one (see what I did there?) but it can also cause massive amounts of stress and waste tremendous amounts of time.

One of the first things I do when I take on a new coaching client is what I call “stabilizing the ship” which entails giving the individual a solid foundation upon which to sail forward.  Many times I find they’re out of balance because their email inbox is a disastrous vortex that sucks the life out of them.  The other challenge they often face is none of their time is their own because the invites on their calendar dictate their daily lives versus it being the other way around like it should.

When you have an inbox with over 500 emails in it, there’s no way you can lead and communicate effectively.  At the least, it’s a stressful distraction knowing there’s all that “work” in there you need to do.  At worst, it consumes every last bit of your energy thereby taking you away from the more important tasks of leading your people.

The good news is you can get to inbox zero… and stay there.  I’m not kidding.  It’s not just some bombastic blog headline to get you to read.  I personally use this method (I’m at inbox 14 as I’m writing this) and I’ve coached others to use it.  They’ve gone from literally 2,000 emails to inbox zero in the period of a month and they’ve done a much better job of staying there.  You can do it too.  It simply takes a method and some discipline.

So here you go – here are the 5 steps to getting to inbox zero… and staying there!

1. Unsubscribe from all the crap.  I know it seemed like a good idea when you signed up for the Future Trillionaires of America thrice-daily newsletter but I’m betting you’re not getting much out of it now because you simply don’t have the time to read it.  If you haven’t read a particular subscription in over a month, unsubscribe (note – this blog will NOT be included in your unsubscription targets because clearly you’re reading it right now).  Note I didn’t say delete.  I said unsubscribe.  Deleting treats a symptom.  Go to the trouble of finding the tiny unsubscribe link, go to the website, and get yourself off the mailing list.  Also, once you’ve unsubscribed, delete all back issues of that newsletter currently resident in your inbox.  Note this step also applies to all the daily reports you get from folks at your company.  You don’t need the Daily Customer Complaint Tracker cluttering up your inbox.  If you haven’t looked at a report in a month, get off the distro list.  There.  We’ve now reduced your inbox by about 20% (and kept those emails from coming back).

Email Triage

The next three rules deal with the three actions you’re allowed as part of email triage.  The MOST times you should touch an email is TWICE.  You don’t realize this but you burn hours every week in what I call email friction.  You open an email and read it.  You say “oh, I’ll come back to this later.”  You reopen it later in the day, spend a couple of minutes reading to refresh the topic in your mind, then say “oh, I don’t have time for this.  I’ll do it later.”  Then you repeat that act of insanity countless times.  Stop.  Now.  You’re going to learn some self-control and learn how to touch an email twice and only twice.  This is the absolute key to getting to and staying at inbox zero.

2. File/Delete.  A lot of stuff you get is FYI only.  There are certain senders who you know only send you FYI/CYA emails.  Create a filing system (it’s really easy in Outlook and most other mail clients).  Read the email once (and maybe only partially so you know what you have) then FILE IT IMMEDIATELY.  Don’t let it sit in the inbox.  Once you’ve read it, put it in the correct file.  If you ever need it, you know where to find it.  But it is CRITICAL that you file it immediately after reading it.  By the way, “Trash” is a file.  If you read something and know you’ll never need it again, DELETE IT IMMEDIATELY.  About 60-80% of your email likely falls in this category.

3. Reply Immediately.  Some emails are easy to snap off a quick reply to.  So do it.  Right then and there.  When you have the message open, think about it and reply.  Eliminate the friction of opening it multiple times over the course of a day before you reply.  You have already invested the time to read it and think about it. Finish it off with a reply.  Once you’ve replied, delete or file the original message.  Get it out of the inbox so you don’t have the “gee, I think I replied to this but I’m not sure” moment a couple of days later.  Get that stuff out of there.

4. Reply as You’re Able.  Some messages are meaty and require a lot of time to reply.  As soon as you get that vibe from a message, stop thinking about it.  Note if there’s a deadline on it and close the message if you’re not able to FULLY RESPOND in that moment.  Once you’ve done that, put a block of time on your calendar for responding to that one message.  Once you’ve responded, file/delete the original email as appropriate.  For example, I got a message from a colleague and I knew there was no deadline and the reply would require 4 hours of my time to write the document and send it back.  I let that email sit in my inbox for SIX MONTHS without ever opening it again.  When work finally slowed down and I knew I could carve out a half day and that I was in a frame of mind to do the work, I blocked the time on my calendar, wrote the document, replied, then filed the original message.  This behavior will require you to be comfortable with staring at an email in your inbox for a long time and resist the urge to reopen it because you know how long it will take to complete.  But I believe in you.  You can do it.

Now that you understand triage, go through your ENTIRE inbox and either read/delete/file, read/reply immediately, or read/answer later.  Get through all of it.  It may take you a few dedicated days to do so but it’ll kill that inbox off pretty quickly.  Then stay disciplined about triage going forward.

5. Set Team Rules.  People love the “Reply All” button and they don’t know what “CC” means so they always use “To” instead.  It’s your team.  You set the rules.  Tell them that if they send something “To” you that it is for message where action on your part is required.  Everything else needs to come to you as a “CC” and let them know you won’t read CC’s all the time and more often than not you’ll file them for reference.  Then if they send you something as a “To” that should have been a CC (in other words, the message they sent did NOT require action on your part), reply to the message with that feedback that it should have been a CC and you expect it to be in the future.  Help them understand you’re asking them to do this so you can stay on top of your email and so you can spend more time leading them rather than reading emails over and over (especially ones you don’t need to act on).

Follow these 5 steps rigorously and regularly and I guarantee you’ll tame your inbox much faster than you ever thought you could.  And with all that newly-found free time you can spend time developing your people or enjoying some time off.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

Photo: I’m at inbox zero and heading home. by David Reber

7 Responses to “5 Steps for Quickly Reaching Inbox Zero”

  1. Moira de Roche says:

    one of the best courses I ever attended taught me how to continually have In Box zero. And I use the same time management principles which applied before e-mail when processing an in-tray. If I can deal with something in less than 2 minutes, I do so straight away. If it’s important and will take more time, then I add a reminder to it. If it’s something I want to read, then I put it in a folder called “read Later”. Everything gets filed away (I have many folders) or I hit that delete button. And Evernote makes it easy to save the gems of advice without clogging up you mail file.

  2. […] via 5 Steps for Emptying Your Email Inbox and Keeping it Empty. […]

  3. Great article! Getting to inbox zero can certainly be a drag but if people follow the processes outlines above (especially unsubscribing from all the crap and touching emails only twice), they’ll be in pretty good shape.

    I will also add to the list to check your email only a few times a day (preferably 3) and put a cap on how much time you are going to spend in the inbox each time. This way you control your emails, not the other way around.

  4. Gillian Fannin says:

    You just gave me a new Maxim! I’ve been practicing this for the past week and am finding it so much easier to handle the amount of emails I get. I’ve even managed to reduce the number that hit my inbox too too! Thank you.

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