There are a lot of tactics I use to stay organized that have been called “over the top.”
The obsessive way I monitor my inbox is one of them. I strive to achieve Inbox Zero every single day.
“Inbox Zero” is when you round out the day having a completely empty inbox. And while you may say to yourself, “That’s impossible,” I have been doing it for three years, and my inbox has never veered over 30 emails at a time–because of the system I’m about to share with you.
Here are the rules of a clean inbox:
1. Set aside “Inbox Time”
There are so many people that play inbox ping pong. They’re unable to escape from a constant flurry of emails, and while the busyness makes us feel productive, it’s actually the opposite. By not focusing on one task at a time, we’re splitting our attention further away from accomplishing anything.
Set aside 30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes in the afternoon to do inbox maintenance. While you might be wigging out at this idea, I assure you that it will be okay. The world will keep turning.
It’s vital that we break ourselves of the notion that everything must be answered immediately. Detox from your inbox by turning it off outside of those thirty minutes time blocks. If someone really, desperately needs to get ahold of you, they’ll find a way.
2. Don’t move anything until it’s done
Under the “Inbox Zero” method, emails become tasks. My inbox currently has an email request for a blog I need to write, a few Amazon packages I’m tracking, and an interview I need to turn into an email for a board I’m on. And that’s it.
When a new email comes in, I will either read and sort it (like morning devotions), read and delete it (like coupons for things I don’t need), or read and leave it (like a request for a quote on a hand-lettered piece that I need to get back to them on).
3. Don’t keep anything after it’s done
Once a task is complete (say, for instance, I finish writing this blog for Austin), I’ll move his request into my folder “Daily New Years.” It’s that easy.
4. Use folders
Folders are the easiest way to stay on top of the inbox because it gives incoming mail a designated home.
I want to remember my parents’ travel plans for the holidays, but it’s not something I need to take action on. So instead of leaving it in the inbox to move further and further away in a sea of emails, I quickly drag and drop it into my “Mom and Dad” folder, and I’ll know where to find it closer to Thanksgiving.
For me, I started right away on this at my first job – before I got important enough to have countless emails coming in. So the habit began from square one. The thing is, a lot of people already have thousands of emails.
You’re not out of luck if you are currently drowning in emails because I am going to start from there with a step by step guide to getting to Inbox Zero.
Step 1: The Mass Sort
Create only these two folders:
- To Do
- To Sort
Move every email in your inbox into one of these folders. If it requires follow-up, payment, tracking, or a response – it goes it “To Do.” Everything else goes in “To Sort.”
Step 2: The Second Sort
Leave “To Do” alone for now. We’ll get back to that. Now, create these folders:
From your “To Sort” folder, organize the emails into these. From here, you’ll be able to create subfolders. Like “To Do > Erin’s Birthday Party” or “Home > Bills > Electric.”
And on and on, until you have sorted them as far as you want to get. Here are some samples of folder paths you could create:
Home > Bills > Electric
Home > 2018 > October > Bills
Home > October 2018 > Expenses > Bills
The combinations are endless, but I recommend mirroring whatever you use in your hard copy filing cabinets, so you don’t confuse yourself.
Pro Tip: Don’t stop to read them. Your goal here isn’t to do anything but drag and drop. Once you’re organized, you can read, respond, pick through – whatever. But for now, stay on task.
After you get to a place where your inbox is under control, you can come back to these. I recommend taking a folder per week and spending 10 minutes each day combing through it. Delete old emails, sort with more detail, unsubscribe from things you’re not interested in anymore . . . you get the idea.
Step 3: The Task List
Go back to your “To Do” folder. These are the emails that will make up your inbox. In the folder, go through them slowly.
- If you can take immediate action, like saying “yes” to a lunch request, do so and then that’s done. Delete or sort.
- If you can’t take immediate action, put it back into the inbox. It has now become a task.
Step 4: Maintenance
Now’s the fun part. You have your task list, start accomplishing. Choose something you want to complete, close your inbox, and get it done!
Just so you can feel sure that this works, at my last job I averaged close to 50 emails a day, oftentimes more. And through this method, I was able to say more on top of it than any other strategy.
When my inbox got too full, that was a good indicator that I was taking on too much or not prioritizing my time correctly to accomplish things. I had the evidence right in front of me! And now you will too.
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