Email Inbox Zero: get there in 12 steps

Mobile phone in use. CC0 Public Domain.

Email Inbox Zero. At times it can feel like the El Dorado of digital organisation — possibly wonderful but definitely elusive.

However, it can be done. I’ve been there, more than once.

You too can get there — with the help of the dozen top tips I learned along the way.

1. Decide how often you want to be at zero

Having your inbox permanently at zero is impossible. Having messages come in is, after all, half the point of email. As a lot of my work is built around weekly cycles, for me hitting inbox zero at the end of each week is the aim; for you it might be each day.

2. Ease your email inbox towards the target

Just as with dieting, it is gradual sustained progress that brings permanent improvement. Binge purging emails just gives a short term buzz. Once you have decided when you want to be at zero, take a note of how many emails are in your inbox at that time. Discipline yourself to come in at a lower number each time your goal comes round again until finally one time you are at zero — and only then make sure you stay at zero.

3. Stop using your email inbox as a substitute for filing

Quite often there will be an email you have read, responded to but do not want to forget quite yet. Perhaps you have made an order and don’t want to bury away the confirmation until the goods arrive. That is fine — but do not use your inbox for that.

Create a “pending” folder to hold these interim messages. Have a check through of that folder every week and never put messages in there which still need action from you.

4. Speed up replies with standard templates

Some email programs let you write template answers and give this feature an obvious name, such as ‘canned responses’ in Gmail. Other email packages have the same option but hide it under a deceptive name. I have lost count of the number of people I have met who did not make the imaginative leap from realising that a ‘signature’ in Microsoft Outlook could actually be a complete email.

You can also do something similar to speed up the content of messages too – customise your autocorrect / word completion options. For example, if you often make reference to Stroud Green Road, set sgr to be autocorrected to Stroud Green Road. Do a few of those and you can end up saving quite a lot of time, especially when using devices without conventional keyboards.

5. Only delay if it will be quicker or easier to reply in the future

Procrastination is one of the great enemies of inbox zero. You see an email and think you just don’t quite want to reply to it now, so you put it off. And next time you see it you put off replying again. And again. It is a very human trait.

The answer? Ask yourself if replying at some point in the future will be quicker or easier. Sometimes it will (e.g. because you are waiting for some information), in which case delay is acceptable. But if it isn’t, then reply now. Right now. Really, right now.

6. Quarantine newsletters you are not sure about

I used to be subscribed to far too many newsletters, never quite leaving them because there was always one story that was just interesting enough to make me hang on.

The answer is to automatically sideline your questionable newsletters into a folder where you do not read them (except, ahem, for certain newsletters).

Then once a month look through the folder and ask yourself if you really missed out not reading those old emails. If not, bingo — unsubscribing you go. If you really, really have missed out — then stop redirecting that newsletter.

7. Purge periodic email lists

Cutting my newsletter addiction was good, but I quickly realised as big an issue was the irregular notification email lists, such as occasional news from software firms whose products I use.

The uber-quick read followed by a swift delete turns out not to be efficient because a few moments of extra thought and then hitting the unsubscribe option is what you really need to do.

8. Report spam

There is a similar tip about spam which manages to sneak its way past your email provider’s filters. Spam filters have improved enormously in the last few years and are now normally good at learning quickly from their mistakes.

That makes reporting an email as spam/junk worth doing, because the chances are it will help cut off other messages that are headed towards your inbox.

9. Tame your notification messages

It can be really handy to have an email prompt when some particular actions take place on a social network or another online service.

I used to have Twitter set up to email me whenever I got a direct message for example, but given how often I look at Twitter anyway, that is just noise in my inbox. It was another source of emails to tame. Off went that notification setting.

If you’re on LinkedIn, that is often a particular source of notification emails which are of limited value. A few minutes with your LinkedIn settings can save an awful lot of emails.

10. Pre-empt follow up emails with more comprehensive replies

Some conversations do require several emails back and forth. However, extra messages are often generated simply because a message only does half the job.

If there is an obvious follow-up question to what you write, then cover that as well in the original email. Most obviously, if you are agreeing to meet someone, suggest the time and place all in one message, saving on the follow-ups to fix those too.

11. Archive, don’t delete

If you are focusing on dealing with emails quickly and decisively, including liberal use of the delete button, mistakes will sometimes happen. Rather than permanently deleting emails, it is therefore better for you either to archive rather than delete or only periodically empty your deleted items folder. That way, there is always a safety net to go back to — and when the occasional mistake does happen, it won’t throw you off your inbox zero mojo.

12. And finally… excuse brevity

It is all too easy to misunderstand the tone of voice in an email, in particular to confuse efficient brevity with abrupt rudeness. That is a particular danger with clearing out emails whilst you are away from your desk on smartphone or tablet. There is a simple solution.

Change the default email signature advertising the manufacturer (e.g. “Sent from my iPad”) to one that helps (“Sent from tablet whilst on the move, so please excuse any brevity”). With that, a few short “yes” and “no” replies come over as helpful efficiency, not terse hostility.

Oh, and good luck!

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