Email Inbox Zero — Really?

Inbox Zero – WHAT?  Have you heard of “Inbox Zero”, whereby one processes the items in one’s email inbox down to zero on a regular basis? Is this possible? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes. It is for me, at least. Confession: I have only recently achieved (or even tried to achieve) Inbox Zero. Previously I was happy as long as I could see all my inbox emails without scrolling down (about 30). Whatever your comfort level is, the following tips will help.

Inbox Zero — WHY?  I call a stack of random papers on the counter a MYSTERY PILE. And I think of an inbox full of emails as a VIRTUAL MYSTERY PILE. It might include ads, personal notes, jokes and other time wasters, newsletters, work stuff that’s just FYI, and other work stuff that needs my attention. Some people pride themselves in having 2000 emails in their email inbox. Really? Yes, to an extent you can use a search feature to find what you are looking for, but even if you’ve narrowed down the results, using keywords, you still have to spend time and brain cells figuring out which is the one you actually need right now. It’s more likely that you will forget you need it at all, and that it will be lost in the virtual clutter. So what is the solution? Inbox Zero.

Inbox Zero — HOW?  I use a physical ACTION FILE for incoming paper, and I have a VIRTUAL ACTION FILE set up for my email. These files are NOT for permanent storage. They are for ACTIONS that need to be performed. So, when my inbox is empty, there is still work to be done, but I’ve already decided what actions are required, and I’m not worried about what may be lurking in my inbox.

A few tips:

  • Set up an email ACTION FILE with only a few folders such as RESPOND, DELEGATE, DO, DEFER, and ARCHIVE. DELETE as many as you can right off the bat and move the rest to the appropriate files. If you don’t know how to create files, ask someone to help you.
  • Schedule time to PROCESS your Inbox. This means deleting unwanted items and moving tasks to the appropriate ACTION FILE folder.
  • Schedule time to DO the tasks in your ACTION FILE. PROCESSING your inbox is not the same thing as DOING the work represented by some of the emails. By the same token, don’t get caught up doing actions and forget to process the rest of your inbox.
  • Move your current backlog into a folder called “Email to Sort and Purge”, or whatever makes sense to you.  Process this backlog a bit at a time while you are also putting your new Inbox Zero habit into practice.
  • Reduce clutter in your inbox by unsubscribing to lists you no longer care about and/or mark certain senders as junk. Check your junk file once a day to retrieve anything that went there mistakenly. Familiarize yourself with your email tools and options. Set up “rules” for email you want to receive that don’t require action on your part (i.e. blogs and newsletters you enjoy reading).
  • Don’t check email all day long. Check it, and process it into your ACTION FILE, a few certain times a day. Don’t check email unless you have time to PROCESS what you find there. Turn off the dinger and visual cues so you can focus on whatever else you are trying to accomplish at your computer.

How many emails are in YOUR inbox? Are you going to aim for Inbox Zero?

Related blog post: Eliminate Those Mystery Paper Piles! (a.k.a. How to Create an Action File)
Related video: Original Inbox Zero Video by Merlin Mann.  It’s 30 minutes plus Q&A, and the captioning is terrible, but also kind of amusing.
Organized For LifeCopyright 2012 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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4 Responses to “Email Inbox Zero — Really?”

  1. Janet Barclay (@JanetBarclay) Says:

    At this moment, I have 5 items in my inbox. They probably don’t need to be there, but I’m okay with it. When it gets over 10, I get antsy. Occasionally I achieve Inbox Zero but it never lasts very long – if I could just stop clicking on Send/Receive, I’d be all set!

    • Hazel Thornton Says:

      Hi Janet. 5 is amazing! Reaching 0 is kind of like saying “I just did the dishes.” Or laundry. Admirable and necessary, but fleeting. The frequency for zeroing out one’s inbox would vary, of course, depending on how many emails they get, and what their tolerance is for the number of emails sitting in their inbox. And some folks will file them in their virtual Action File and forget about them and never take action. :-/

  2. Emily Herwig (@TidyLife) Says:

    Hazel, I am totally with you on this! Love getting to inbox zero but my comfort level is 20 while in processing mode because that’s how many fit on my screen at one time in Google Apps. (It is at 25 right now, eek, I feel a processing session coming on! :) It’s just like David Allen says, “it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero than to maintain it at 300 or 3,000.”

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