Productivity Lessons Part 3 – Inbox Zero

26 Dec / James Eastham

What started out as a super fast and intuitive upgrade to the classic mail system has morphed into an all-encompassing behemoth. If there’s one thing the vast majority of people, myself included, get bogged down in. It’s the dreaded email inbox! I like to think of my inbox as everybody else’s to-do list for me. Which is all well and good, if my own to-do list wasn’t already bursting at the seams. Want to know how to get it under control? Read on.

The problem with an overflowing inbox

Where to start with the problems of an overflowing and un-organized inbox? Is it the scrolling and searching to find the email you want? Is it not knowing what to tackle next? The simple psychology of seeing 100+ new emails awaiting your attention. All these things contribute to the added mental stress of just being a 21st-century employee.

Anybody who works in a job that entails you having your own email address will understand the pain. You feel obliged to have your emails on your phone, this is what the technology was invented for right? You tell yourself you aren’t going to check your emails outside of work hours. But then the one email sneaks in from your boss that you absolutely must look at right away. Before you know it, you’ve spent 3 hours replying to emails and the nice romantic dinner with your significant other is ruined! A bit of a slippery slope argument I know, but I’m trying to make a point.

I used to be a firm advocate for the ‘leave work leave emails behind’ mantra. A recent conversation with a good friend changed my tune a little bit. He had spent over 30 years working with at a well known global IT corporation across a variety of roles, his last of which being in escalation. He also has a perfect analogy for why you should track your emails. (stay with me for a second).

If you were walking down a footpath and saw a cigarette smoldering in the grass, with the grass around it starting to set alight, what would you do? Would you walk on by and leave the fire to grow, or would you stamp it out early on whilst you had the chance?

That analogy changed my opinion on taking work home. Answering a clients question, responding to an email or just knowing what’s on the cards for the next day can save huge amounts of time in the long run.

Now you may be saying that’s counter-intuitive to this whole article. An article written on taking back control of your inbox should not include checking your emails more. That’s absolutely NOT what I’m proposing. What I am proposing, is having more control over your inbox itself to allow you to know at any time what is going on.

So, what are you proposing?

My alternative is simply just taking more control over your inbox. If your inbox is filled with 100+ emails receiving a new one tempts you to check/respond to a couple more. If your inbox is completely empty and you have a process in place for managing new emails, the temptation is gone!

To sidetrack slightly at this point, I get absolutely no notifications on my phone or laptop. Period! Although I do advocate checking emails regularly, I DO NOT get notifications every time I get a new email. I choose to check my emails when I am ready not when the inbox arrives. That may seem alien to some people! What if catastrophic event X happens to one of my clients and I miss the email. My experience from 7+years working in tech. If the event is catastrophic enough, you’ll have more than just an email on the way.

The two-pronged approach

I take a two-pronged approach to manage my inbox and I’ll go into each detail about each prong in a little bit. But to give a brief overview:

  1. Day to day processing – This is the on the fly processing of emails as they arrive. When I take a look at a new email within 2 minutes I’ve decided what to do with said email and removed it from my inbox. That might be filling, moving or god forbid a straight up deletion. You’d be surprised how much of your email can actually be instantly deleted.
  2. Weekly processing – This filters into my weekly review I discussed in part 2 of my productivity lessons series here. As part of my weekly review, I spent a little bit of time looking at things I’d filed and my inbox as a whole. If it had been a particularly busy week, there is every chance my inbox has grown a little bit out of control.

Combining prong one and prong two into a cohesive strategy leads to me spending 80% of my time with an email client looking like this.

An empty email inbox

Weekly processing

As I mentioned, my weekly email processing filters in as part of my whole weekly review strategy. There are, however, a couple of structural pieces within my mailbox itself that help the whole process. Lots of people I know have sub-folders on top of subfolders and elaborate email filing structures. It basically turns their emails into a filing cabinet. That isn’t what emails are for? Would you do the same for your physical post? Keeping every single piece just in case you need it later? No, no you would not?

My inbox structure sits in two separate parts;

Actionable

Actionable things are emails that I need to keep my eye on. Whether that’s because they directly need my attention, I need to review the contents or I may need to action the email at some point in the future. This splits my email up into 3 folders

@Action

Anything filed under @action is requiring my direct attention. Anything that is moved into @action is also added to my master action list that I talked about in part 2 of the series. This has the benefit of knowing that when I come to the item on my to do list, any corresponding resources are easily accessible.

@Read

That change in company procedure? The client quote document you need to review at some point in the future? An interesting blog post you want to read? Welcome to the @read folder. Anything you want to review, but not get sidetracked with straight away heads to review. Personally, I have email rules set up to move interesting blog subscriptions straight into the read folder. When I have time sat with nothing to do, this is once of the first places I head.

@Waiting

You’ve been CC’d on an email that requires your attention, but only after your colleague has confirmed it’s good to go. At this time it’s not something your working on directly. But it’s also something you’ve reviewed and MAY need to access in the future. Get it in the @waiting folder. This is a storage area for all those emails that may eventually land on your desk, but right now are not your problem.

Note: The @ is significant just to ensure the 3 folders stay at the top of my email clients list of subfolders

Filed

I used to be an email hoarder. There, I finally admitted my problem. Every flight booking, hotel reservation, and Amazon order confirmation would get stored away. My reasoning, well what if I need to see what I bought in February 2011 at some point in the future? My email inbox was Inception-like, a folder within a folder within a folder. It was horrible! As well as being horrible, I couldn’t recall a single time I had gone back into one of these folders. The alternative will be different for everybody. But my filing system currently is

  1. Confirmations – If I book a flight, hotel, concert etc the confirmation email gets stored in my confirmations folder. It is stored in here until after the event has passed, at which point it’s deleted
  2. Work – Any important work-related emails that come to my personal email address. Things like contracts, salary negotiations etc that should be easily accessible
  3. House – Any emails to do with the house we own. Mortgage information, change of utilities etc. This is probably left over from my email hoarding, but it keeps me happy knowing all this stuff is together
  4. General collection – Any other rubbish I need to store and not delete. This is equal to my incredibly complex folder structure, just all in one place. Every single reputable email client now has pretty advanced search functionality, so keeping everything in one folder really doesn’t slow you down in any way.

Anything else that doesn’t fit into one of these categories? Bye bye email, you are gone forever. To the trash!

Actionable tip 1 – Get your email structure in place

If you are currently at the point of having more emails you can ever possibly imagine, the first time processing may be painful. It will almost definitely take you a large chunk of time. Stick with it, get everything moved, filed or deleted and then move on. Move on, with a cleaner mind as well as a cleaner inbox.

Day to day processing

The business end of email processing, how I manage emails that land in my inbox. One of the most important distinctions I make on this, close down your email client! Get that tab closed. Exit Microsoft Outlook! Don’t even tempt yourself.

 Actionable tip 2 – Keep your email client closed down

The counter-argument I always hear to this, yep you guessed it. What if super urgent important email X arrives and I miss it. Too which my response is; a) your inbox is going to be so clean you couldn’t possibly miss it and b) if it’s so urgent you’ll get a phone call. No need to worry, ever!

Ok, maybe not ever. But I hope you get the point. Keeping your mail client closed down removes those annoying notifications that are just crying out to be clicked. We’ve all been there. Mid-way through writing a super urgent thing and Dave from HR sends out a funny cat video. I’m really into this report and can’t really look away, but what could a quick look hurt. After watching the cat video (yes, it was hilarious) you notice person A from client B has asked you to do something. Therein lies the issue, now your stuck in your inbox.

via GIPHY

Schedule your inbox

If your following along with this series, you’ll already have planned out your working day. All you need to do is build in time around that to check your inbox. This will vary massively from person to person. Working in a direct customer service role, you probably need to keep your eye on it a little more. A software developer who only ever receives internal emails, you probably don’t need to check your emails quite as often. Personally, 2-3 times a working day is usually my limit. Once when I first start, once just after lunch and once before I shut down for the day.

To clarify, I do tend to keep an eye on my emails outside of working hours if I have nothing else taking my active attention. ‘Inbox scheduling’ is meant for when your pro-active attention is meant to be on other things.

Actionable tip 3 – Work out your opitmal inbox schedule and stick to it!

When it comes to a time when you’re going to delve into your inbox, keep the weekly processing in mind. Apply the same steps.

  1. Start from the oldest email first
  2. Do I need to action it?
    1. Is my action going to take me less than 2 minutes? Better get my arse in gear and action is right away
    2. Longer than 2 minutes, get it in the @action folder and into my digital to do list
  3. Is it something I need to review in more detail? Yes? Get it in the @read folder
  4. Is it an email that may concern me at some point in the future. You know the script by now. Get it in @waiting
  5. Do I absolutely 100% need to store this email? Will I need to access it again in the future? File it away
  6. Delete it

With a bit of practice, this whole process should take minutes. That way, you can be back into doing the things that you planned on getting done today and removing the constant interruptions.

Handling the urgent email

Your weekly review is on point. Day to day processing is done in minutes and you are spending less and less time sitting in your inbox. Productivity is through the roof. Yet the same scenario will always rear it’s ugly, productivity-killing head. The urgent email!

You had your day mapped out nicely, 3 tasks you needed to get boxed off. The killer that was number 1 is out of the way. Your midway through number 2 when you break for lunch and then check your inbox. Shit… A clients system is completely offline and they are freaking out. What do you do? As the helpful and attentive employee you are, of course you get involved.

Unfortunately, I am yet to find a magic wand for these scenarios. Scenarios which take many different forms. Your boss needs an urgent report? A customer is chasing an order that is a month late? The sales team have called an emergency meeting? These things are all part of working life and despite our best efforts, unexpected things will always happen.

All I can advise on this scenario, use your own knowledge of your own job. Is the email actually of such importance that you need to drop everything you are doing right away? In a lot of cases, I’d imagine probably not. Keep your flow, keep your brain in what you are doing and then come back to the ‘urgent’ email later. If it truly is an all hands on deck, monumental problem. Well, get involved and help as best you can.

Rounding up

I hope I’ve shown a better way of managing your inbox. Even if you don’t take all of these points on board, most importantly picking up even a couple will massively improve your relationship with your emails. It always makes me chuckle now, seeing somebody’s overflowing and uncontrollable inbox. Don’t be that person anymore! Get your inbox in order and take back control.

Download links

Email processing document

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