Ask any business person what their biggest frustration is, and chances are you’ll find email at the top of their list. Receiving and processing email can add a huge burden to an already overstuffed day.
In my day job, I receive up to 100 emails per day. This adds up to 500 emails per week and 2000 emails per month. Just imagine having this in your physical mailbox. Insane, right?
Every 5 minutes I get a notification of a new email.
Imagine stopping every 5 minutes to look at your email. This kills any type of productivity and focus.
Did you know that if you’re working on something and you get distracted like this, it can take up to 25 minutes to get mentally back to the original topic? With an email notification coming in every 5 minutes, the day would be over before you even know it, and you’d wonder what you even got done.
Inbox Zero is the answer
Maintaining an empty inbox, or “Inbox Zero”, is the key to keeping your email from growing into a job that feels too big to handle.
With so much email coming in, and even more email still in the inbox, Inbox Zero seems impossible—but is it?
After years of tweaking my workflows, testing all sorts of tools and methods, I finally found the perfect combination of tools and rules that help me to get Inbox Zero EVERY single day. More importantly, it is not only an empty inbox: Everything is organized into tasks that come up on my time-management software when it’s the right time to process it.
The ruleset I am about to share with you was inspired by David Allen and his book GTD as well as Tim Ferris and his book The 4-Hour Work Week. Both books cover, in much detail, how they handle a busy inbox. I took some key points out of both methods and implemented it into my existing workflow.
It’s important to understand the key message here. Applying the following rules is one thing, but it is much more important to make quick decisions. The more often you process your inbox using these rules, the faster you will be able to bust through it.
Rule 1 – Fixed email processing times
Instead of responding to each email every time an alert goes off, bulk process the emails in fixed time slots that should not be longer than 30 minutes.
In order to catch all incoming emails during the day, set 2-3 30 minute time slots across the day; with the last block set just before finishing your workday. These time slots should be blocked in your calendar every day. Always stick to them. You can be flexible and move them around over the day, BUT never delete those time slots.
Rule 2 – Switch OFF Notifications
Don’t be tempted to look at your email at any other time than the pre-scheduled time slots you’ve set aside for processing email.
Remember, each time you get distracted when you are focused on something it takes you about 25 minutes to find your way back to focus mode. Hence, the most important rule is to switch off email notifications. I would even say, delete any email app from all your mobile devices except the device you do your main work on.
But what about urgent emails?
There’s no such a thing. When someone sends an email, they should not expect to get a reply within minutes, hours, or even that day. If something is important, they can start a chat where I reply within 30 min. If it is URGENT, (and by urgent I mean the house is burning down) then they can call me. Your colleagues need to understand that you are working on pre-scheduled tasks and meetings. If they send you something unplanned, then you should get the chance to plan it into your schedule.
Rule 3 – Process your inbox like a pro
When you first open your inbox during your scheduled email processing time, you need to get an overview of what is important very quickly! The best way to approach this is to categorize your emails by types and then process from low to high priority. You want to get rid of nonsense emails first, and then process emails that will affect your schedule.
First: Get rid of nonsense email
This type of email can usually be handled in less than 10 seconds.
Quickly delete any company-wide status updates or system notifications that don’t apply to you. Sort through and respond to calendar invites. Unsubscribe from any newsletter you don’t read or aren’t interested in. Filter emails from certain senders that don’t apply to you by using your email’s filtering function.
Next: Find the emails you can answer now
Part of quickly emptying your inbox is identifying and prioritizing each email. When you identify an email that can be responded to in 2 minutes or less, do it immediately. Focusing on quickly processing these 2 minute emails gives you the right mindset to just jump in and get them done. The way you feel when you delete or archive these emails gives you the motivation to move on to the bigger emails.
Finally: Turn longer emails into tasks
Turn emails that take longer than 2 minutes to respond to or process into a task. Prioritize these longer emails and then assign them a time to come up on your task list. This way you can attend to the email when you have the time to spend on it. And making it a task will ensure that it is completed when it needs to be.
Tools for processing and organizing your email
Along with these rules and systems, I also use several apps and programs to make my email management easier.
At work I use Gmail. If there is information in an email I want to save, I use the note-taking app, Google Keep. Since it is attached to my work email address and is only accessed at work, the information saved inside this app is secure. (For personal information storage, I like to use Evernote for its web clipping function. But since it stores a clip of the email inside the app, it is less secure than Google Keep, which only saves the link to the email that can only be accessed by logging into your email account. This makes Evernote not quite as secure as Google Keep, so I use it only for personal email storage.)
When I have a bigger email that needs to become a task, I use Todoist due to its amazing Gmail integration. When you tap on the Todoist button inside Gmail, a new task will be created using the email subject line and it will link back to the original email inside of Gmail so you can reopen the email with one click. Todoist will also sync with your Google Calendar. If you make a change inside Todoist, it will automatically be updated in Google Calendar, and if you make a change in Google Calendar it will update inside Todoist.
For task management inside a team, I use the project management app, Asana. While Asana has Gmail integration it isn’t quite as good as the integration of Todoist. Asana gives me the ability managing a task where team assignments need to be made and tracked.
To recap the main points that will get you to Inbox Zero:
- Have 1-3 30 minute slots per day to process your emails.
- Disable email notifications on every device you have Gmail installed
- Don’t open your Gmail in between your email processing slots
- Emails are NOT urgent (if anything is urgent people should call)
- Emails that can be answered in under 2 minutes must be answered directly
- Emails that will take longer than 2 minutes will become a task in your task manager.
These rules, systems and tools are what allow me to get to Inbox Zero every day. As with anything new, they take a little time to get used to using them together, but once you do you’ll be telling your colleagues that you achieve Inbox Zero every day too!