Have you ever wondered how much time you spend a day on email? 30 minutes? An hour? Two?
According to a research study by Adobe, we spend on average 2.5 hours a day dealing with personal email and 3.1 hours dealing with work email.
Modern inboxes are noisy, crowded, and time-consuming. So of course it’s almost impossible to stay sane, let alone productive, when you’re constantly having to deal with a never-ending stream of emails flooding our inbox – from clients, employees, partners, media, family and friends.
How do you navigate this battlefield of pending messages and get your valuable time (and mental energy) back? Is the dream of ‘inbox zero’ just a myth or is it achievable?
The short answer? It’s achievable.
Whether you’re aiming for inbox zero or just looking to get a reasonable handle on your email overload, the right set of rules can go a long way in helping you to stay organised and to avoid unnecessary time wasting and frustration.
Read on as we walk you through four key steps to follow to get your inbox in order and keep it that way.
What is inbox zero?
The term and philosophy of ‘Inbox Zero’ was originally coined by Merlin Mann, the founder and writer of 43 Folders, a blog about “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.”
The idea behind it is to have a system in place where you label, triage and organise your emails so that you not only reach inbox zero but also maintain it and ensure you never again have a giant list of emails awaiting reply in your inbox.
So next we’ll look at how you can do that and achieve inbox zero.
Step 1: Schedule email time into your day
No matter how many projects you’re working on or how many client emails demand your attention, leaving your email programme open at all times, having notifications enabled or checking your inbox every other minute to see if anything new has arrived is counterproductive.
Not only will this easily distract you from important work that needs to get done but it’ll also make it more difficult to get back to the tasks you were previously working on.
The solution to breaking this habit is simple: pick a handful of designated times throughout the day to deal with email. For example, you can set aside 15 to 30 minutes at the beginning, middle and end of each day to open, read and reply to emails.
If you need to check your inbox more often, feel free to schedule it into your day as you see fit. Just don’t make it an around-the-clock chore if you want to stay productive.
Step 2: Clean and declutter
The second step to getting your inbox in order is to get rid of all those unnecessary newsletters, subscriptions, social media alerts and junk mail that are adding to the clutter and eating up your day.
So, for the next week or two, unsubscribe from every list-based email, unless you actually open and read them, and believe they’re truly valuable and worth keeping. If they’re not, then unsubscribe and delete straight away.
This is the time to be honest with yourself. If you don’t care about hearing from X, if you don’t open or read content from Y, if you can’t remember how you started receiving emails from Z, cut the cord now and unsubscribe without thinking twice.
Of course, there will be newsletters and subscriptions that you want to continue receiving. Some because they’re filled with great content and the latest in your industry, others because it’s how you keep an eye on your or your clients’ competition.
Step 3: Get organised with folders and subfolders
Now that you’ve deleted and unsubscribed from any unnecessary newsletters and subscriptions, it’s time to create a better system that’ll help keep your inbox low and organised moving forward.
So step three involves creating folders and subfolders.
We’ll be using our new Business Email as our example, but most email platforms, including Outlook or Gmail, will be very similar.
When you get your first mailbox, you only have the bare minimum of folders – Inbox, Sent, Bin, and Spam.
It’s fairly straightforward what these are:
- Inbox – where the emails come in live
- Sent – where the emails you sent live
- Bin – where the emails you delete live
- Spam – where the unwanted emails live
But even with that, you have a very cluttered inbox, filled with everything you ever receive. So, how can you declutter your inbox and keep it that way?
The easiest solution is to create folders.
Depending on your organisation style, you can create different folders by client, by leads or prospects, by type of project, by industry, by status (active, on hold, completed, in negotiation).
Here’s how to create a folder:
- Right click in the folder area
- Select “Create New Folder”
- Give the folder a name
- Click “Okay”
- You now have your first folder!
The next step is to move your emails into those folders. You can do this individually by opening the email and selecting “Move To”. Or you can do it by bulk by selecting a range and then dragging them over to the folder.
If you want to get even more organised, you can create subfolders for each main folder. For example, if you’re working on several projects for a client or company, you can create subfolders for each separate project. You can even add a subfolder for invoices.
To create a subfolder:
- Right click on the folder
- Select “Create New Folder”
- Give the folder a name
- Click “Okay”
- The folder is now in the previous folder
You can also move existing folders into folders by clicking and dragging folders around.
Step 4: Move every email out of your inbox the first time you read it
Once you receive new email, process it straight away. Letting it sit there without taking any action will eat up twice your time – the first time you read it, and then the second time you reread it so you can make a decision on what to do next – reply, delete, delegate.
So, to reach inbox zero, you need to process email the first time you read it. Here’s how:
- Delete – If the email isn’t valuable, important or relevant, or if you don’t need to reply at all or to re-read it, simply delete it.
- Do – If it takes two minutes or less to reply or to take action, do it now. If it’s a meeting invite, put it on your calendar now. If it’s a task, put it on your to-do list now. If it’s a quick reply, take care of it immediately. Then simply archive the email, move it to the appropriate folder or delete it, if you don’t need to keep a record of it.
- Defer – If it’s not urgent and if it takes more than two minutes to read and respond, defer the email for a later, more thorough response. You can create a dedicated “Follow up” folder where you can move emails that require you to craft more detailed replies.
You’ll save yourself lots of time by simply processing emails immediately rather than reading them the first time and coming back to reread them and take action later.
There you have it: the four key steps to help you reach inbox zero.
What about you? Have you ever tried the inbox zero approach? Or do you prefer to let emails sit in your inbox and just search for the right stuff when needed?
We’d love to hear about your approach and tips for dealing with inbox overload.