With the COVID-19 virus limiting travel and interaction, many workers are finding themselves working from home for the first time and dealing with an increase in electronic communication. Luckily, dealing with a mountain of email is a problem that has been faced by others before, and they have come up with ways to deal with it. Based heavily on the work of David Allen, Inbox Zero is a productivity philosophy to help deal with all of that incoming electronic communication.
The average office worker receives over 120 emails per day. That is over 600 per week and 30,000 per year. And that does not include personal email.
Every email that is not handled deleted or moved ends up sitting in the inbox, accumulating into an endless list of unfinished tasks. Having this long list of pending messages staring at you every time you open up your email isn’t an effective method of organization or productivity. It is easy to lose track of emails or have essential tasks fall through the cracks. Having a visually overwhelming mountain of untended to tasks is the antithesis of efficiency. Trying to juggle all of this can cause us to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and discouraged. This juggling distracts us and makes it difficult to focus on any task, let alone achieve them.
Merlin Mann, the founder of 43folders.com, coined five commandments of InboxZero, outlining why a process is beneficial:
Time is precious. Using our time efficiently allows us to concentrate on what matters.
Not all emails are created equal. The Pareto principle (80/20 rule) applies to emails, where 20% of the emails we receive take up 80% of our time. This fact means we can deal with 80% of our emails in 20% of our time.
Less is more. Keeping your time on email (writing and reading) short, you have the most significant impact with the least effort
Cut loose emotions. Don’t focus on the anxiety or frustration that accompanies an untended inbox; just start doing.
Set realistic expectations and priorities. Not every email requires a response. Selectively choosing where to expend your efforts is not only more efficient but better for your sanity.
“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.” ~David Allen
Enter Inbox Zero
Simply put, Inbox Zero is operating with no emails sitting in your inbox (makes sense, right?). Most of the philosophy of Inbox Zero is a modern adaptation of the system outlined by David Allen in his seminal work Getting Things Done (GTD).
The Getting Things Done workflow was not explicitly developed for email. It is technology and tool agnostic, allowing you to apply it to any system. The critical steps of the workflow are:
Capture — Capture everything that has your attention. To-Dos, ideas, recurring tasks.
Clarify — Clarify what you have to do, breaking things down into actionable steps
Organize — Organize your clarified items, ranking by priority and assigning due dates
Review — Look to your next action and ensure it can be picked up and worked on
Engage — Start taking those actionable steps
“Don’t let your emails dictate your priorities” ~Jeff Davidson We can start with these steps and tweak them to be talking specifically about emails.
Capture: The email inbox is in itself a repository of things that are vying for your attention. For InboxZero, we don’t need to modify this at all. The inbox is the tool.
Clarify: This is the big one when it comes to implementing InboxZero. We receive emails for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are actionable. When an email comes in, we need to clarify what type of email it is and deal with it appropriately. We will say emails fall into four categories:
Trash — No action required and no benefit of saving for reference. Delete immediately.
Reference — No action required but worth saving because it contains information. Archive immediately.
Response (Immediate) — Action required. The email is asking a question that we can provide an answer to in less than two minutes. Respond immediately, then archive.
Response (Work Required) — Action required. The email is asking a question that cannot be answered in less than two minutes or requires additional work. If needed, forward the email to the appropriate parties, schedule a time to work on this email, and set a due date to respond. Then move the email to a “Working On” folder. When you finish the task and respond, archive the email.
Organize: Triaging emails as they come in simplifies this task. The emails move into the trash, are archived, answered and archived, or set into a “Working On” folder.
Review: Set up a regular time to review what is in the “Working On” folder. Some of these emails may be requiring a response from another party, so this review will make sure you have the time to follow up with them.
“The secret of getting things done is to act” ~Dante Alighieri
Where to Start One of the hardest things to do is to start. Starting is especially hard when facing an inbox with hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of messages. It would take hours or days to sort through these and determine what’s essential. So, don’t.
Create a folder to house all of the emails from before implementing the Inbox Zero system. (Mine is called “X-Files”). Then just move every single email you have that is older than a week into this folder. Just drag and drop. Don’t look, don’t read, don’t clarify, don’t organize, don’t do anything more than move them.
Now with a week’s worth of emails, you have a manageable task. Implement the InboxZero system from above, Clarifying and Organizing all of these emails. After you follow the steps, you will have NOTHING in your inbox.
Now, as new emails come in, you can deal with them implementing the modern InboxZero philosophy.
Extra Steps to Supercharge Your Email
Reframe the way you think of email: It’s a text message, not a letter.
Emails should be short. They are a practical tool, not a place to show your writing skills. Think of email as a slightly longer form text message. A pleasant opening line, three sentences to get to the point of the email, and a friendly closing is more than enough for the majority of emails. Keeping emails short will save you time and let you plow through emails efficiently while also aiding others to be efficient in their emails. And as others follow suit and send efficient emails to you, it will help you in the future.
“How to write a good email: 1. Write your email. 2. Delete most of it, 3. Send” ~Dan Munz
Draft stock emails (or parts of emails)
Don’t retread the same ground countless times. There are numerous types of emails that we send that are carbon copies of each other. Making introductions, sending expected documents, etc. can all be re-used from previous writings. So create some standard templates that you can use for all of your recurring messages to save yourself time in the future.
Use the tools that are useful (and don’t use the distracting ones)
There are a lot of productivity tools on the market. Some useful, others not. The problem with not useful tools is not just that they don’t help, but they can serve as a distraction themselves that lowers efficiency. A key example of this is folders to organize emails. With few exceptions (like “Follow Up” or “Working On” folders), spending the time to organize emails will keep you busy but won’t help with your efficiency. The search function in most email providers is almost always the best way to find specific emails. So, make sure the tools you are using are helpful and not just distractions.
Deal with emails in batches
Dealing with emails the moment they come in may seem like a small use of time, only a few seconds or a minute to handle, but it’s much more than that. Recent studies have shown that it takes up to Twenty-Three minutes to get back on task after a distraction. So, don’t look at emails as small tasks that require immediate attention, but batch the emails into a single large job to be dealt with at predetermined intervals throughout the day. Setting a half-hour aside at the beginning, middle, and end of the day will mean that no email sits for more than a few hours without attention. You can then deal with all of your inboxes at once, efficiently plowing through and implementing the tools of inbox zero.
“No one ever got rich, checking their email more often.” ~Noah Kagan