So you just love email, right?
Of course, you don’t. Few people do.
Of all the time-suckers that show up in modern work, email is near the top of most lists. If you tallied the amount of time you spend on email, it would astound you.
Add to that the frustration it causes you (the stress of how many unanswered emails you have, the emails you never seem to get answered, the tough ones you’re dreading, etc.), and it’s no wonder email is a headache for almost all of us.
A month ago, I decided to get to inbox zero and stay there.
Thirty days later, I can’t tell you how much better I feel.
The concept of inbox zero has been around since there was email, but few people live by it. I’ve hit inbox zero more than a few times in my life and stayed there for a few days before drifting back into a cluttered inbox again.
I’m not one of those 4359 unread email guys. No, my bad habits were 2-20 read but unanswered emails sitting in my inbox…perpetually. If I answered a few of them, I let a few more take their place.
No big deal, you say? Actually, big deal. It stressed me out every day.
I’ve figured out how to stay there, and I want to share what I’m learning.
First, two simple rules that will help you stay at inbox zero, then three ways inbox zero will bring you leadership peace, and finally, a 3 step plan on how to get to inbox zero today.
Ready? Here we go. It’s simpler than you think.
Two Simple Rules To Stay At Inbox Zero
So the two rules I adopted for inbox zero are simple:
Touch it once.
Deal with it immediately or put it on a task list.
One of the problems with a full inbox is that you might look at an email five to fifteen times before responding. You hover over it, think about it, and leave it. Then you come back to it again a day later and think, not now. The third time you look at it, you think I should really talk to Emily first, then I can answer that. And so on and so on. And eight days later, it’s still not dealt with.
All of this is a problem for so many reasons. So much time is wasted. So much energy gets spent on nothing.
So, touch an email once. If you can’t deal with it, don’t open it. But then you shouldn’t even be in your inbox…so open it.
And once it’s opened, you either answer it immediately, or if it’s complex and needs time to think through, put it on your task list. I use Asana so that you can copy it over, but any basic task list would do.
Then you’re back to zero.
The problem with using your inbox as a task list is that multiple random emails at 100 words each make for a terribly confusing task list. It’s mud, or better yet, quicksand.
There’s no prioritization, no due date, and nothing specific about what needs to be done with it.
If it’s a task, make it a task. Schedule it. Be specific. Then do it.
The surprise with this simple system?
You will deal with about 99% of your emails right on the spot. No delay. And for the rest? They’re real tasks, which you’ll get to at the appropriate time.
And then you go back into your inbox, and it’s clean.
So…why is inbox zero a better way to live and lead? I’m going to deal with that first because you likely won’t get to inbox zero unless you can see the difference it will make.
There are at least three reasons inbox zero will make you a better leader and give you some much-needed peace.The problem with using your inbox as a task list is that multiple random emails at 100 words each makes for a terribly confusing task list. Click To Tweet
1. It will force you to make decisions fast
As a professional organizer, Andrew Mellen so perceptively said on my leadership podcast, “Clutter is deferred decision making.” (Episode 139)
Bingo.Clutter is deferred decision making. @andrewjmellen Click To Tweet
The reason your closet and garage are a mess is that you can’t decide what to do with your things. So you just leave them in a pile or stick them in a corner for later because you can’t make a decision. And the mess accumulates.
Ditto with your inbox.
Living at inbox zero forces you to make decisions faster about everything that comes your way. If you can’t leave it in your inbox, you deal with it.
And, you then only look at your inbox when you have five minutes to make decisions.
All around, this will be a surprising boost to your efficiency and decision-making capability.
It surprised me.The reason your closet and garage are a mess is because you can't decide what to do with your things. So you just leave them in a pile or stick them in a corner for later because you can't make a decision. Ditto with your inbox. Click To Tweet
2. You’ll get small tasks done immediately
Do you know what your day-to-day mostly is? 100 small decisions.
If you’re forced to empty your inbox, the decision becomes binary. You deal with it right then when you open it, or you move it to a task list.
You’ll eventually get to a place where you think, Do I really want to move this to a task list and take the time to do it? No…so I’ll handle it now.
Ironically, you might think you’ll spend more time making decisions because you have to clear your inbox every time. Still, you’ll actually spend less time making decisions because you only had to make the decisions once, not twice, when you opened your inbox again. Or eight-six times because that thing’s been sitting there for ages.
You may be surprised at how much of your daily work is small decisions that feel unnecessarily bigger when you don’t deal with them immediately.
So deal with them immediately.You may be surprised at how much of your daily work is small decisions that feel unnecessarily bigger when you don't deal with them immediately. Click To Tweet
3. You’ll lose the mental drain of inbox clutter and unresolved tasks
One of the challenges of the work many of us do today is that there’s no finish line.
How do you know when you’ve reached an entire city? How will you know when you’ve maximized potential?
Are you ever done with people?
All of this and more is why it’s so easy to carry the weight of leadership home with you every night and carry it with you in your pocket wherever you go.
Hitting zero means you’re finished. You have a sense of accomplishment.
See this little inbox graphic Gmail gives you?
A month into this experiment, I’m still excited to see it every time and, honestly, still delightfully surprised. I’m done!
Not convinced that unfinished tasks and a cluttered leadership space are bad for mental health?
Well, by comparison, research suggests that living in an organized, clutter-free home can reduce stress, help you sleep better, foster higher productivity, and potentially even help you lose weight.
Maybe your disorganization and indecision are costing you more than you think.Leaders, disorganization and indecision is costing you more than you think. Click To Tweet
3 Simple Steps to Get to Inbox Zero Today
Great theory, you say. But how do I get to inbox zero….today?
Here are three steps that will help you get there fast.
These steps will work for those leaders with 5-10 stagnant emails sitting in your inbox and those leaders with 4397 unread emails.
Step 1: Deal with all your unread emails, or delete them
I know this sounds draconian, but take 30 minutes and deal with ALL your unread emails, or delete them.
If you have a dozen emails lingering, 30 minutes is likely way more than you need to get to inbox zero. But just set it aside anyway. Maybe you need to build a task management system too (as I shared, I use Asana, but there are hundreds of task management systems out there. (Here’s a list of some current task management apps).
So what if you’re the guy or woman with a million unread emails?
I’ve never been there, but here’s my suggestion. Pick an arbitrary date (maybe two weeks or a month at the most) and deal with all those.
Then archive or delete the rest.
What, you say, how can I do that? Those people are relying on me…there’s critical data in there.
Actually, that’s not true. Some of those people who sent unread emails have forgotten you. Some may have even died; who knows?
And that email from 2016 you never looked at, do you really think that’s still a live issue?
Nope. It’s not.
If you’re terrified of losing data, mark them all as read and batch-archive them, so they’re searchable. Then move on with your life.
And if you’re terrified of letting people down, send one email to your critical contacts and say something like this.
Subject: Got a pressing issue I haven’t dealt with? Can you re-send your email?
I’ve decided to get to inbox zero and start organizing my workflow in a new way.
To that end, today I’m going to delete every email that’s over 30 days old.
I apologize for not getting back to you on the relevant matter. If it’s still a current issue for you, do you mind resending me the email?
I promise I’ll be responding much faster in the future.
Thanks! I appreciate you!
There, you can even cut and paste that into your email. Just make sure you use your name. 🙂
Step 2. Limit reading email to a few times a day
Ironically, one of the fastest ways to get a cluttered inbox is to check email repeatedly throughout the day.
Maybe you’re in line at Starbucks, and you look just to see who’s emailed you. But, of course, you don’t have time to deal with it, so you just tap on a few and move on.
But now you’re spending mental energy on problems you can’t solve right now. Bad idea.
So, just resolve to look at your email a few times a day and set aside 10 minutes (or 30..depending on your email workload) to deal with it.
Finish at inbox zero every time, and remember, whatever you can’t answer in that window because it’s complex or something you’ll be working on later, move to a task list.
Although I sound like a broken record on this, you should also turn off all notifications for your inbox (and on your phone entirely). That way, you won’t be tempted to look when you can’t deal with it.
If you only check email when you have time to deal with it, you’ll end up dealing with things in far less time.If you only check email when you have time to deal with it, you'll end up dealing with things in far less time. Click To Tweet
Step 3. Train Your Team To Wait for Meetings
The final way you can get to and stay at inbox zero is to reduce the amount of emails you get.
And yes, you can do this.
Naturally, you can unsubscribe to a million things, but that still doesn’t solve work.
So here’s how to solve work: train the people around you to email you less and talk to you more.
Office culture has moved to management by email. It’s a terrible system.
Here’s what to do with all the people you meet with regularly: for anything that’s not urgent, ask them to wait to ask you about it until the next time you meet.
You’ll be shocked at how non-urgent most of what you’re dealing with is. And you’ll be shocked at how much time you spent urgently answering non-urgent emails.
I ask my team to keep a list of everything they need to ask me. If things can’t wait for the next meeting, we’ll schedule a ten-30 minute phone call, Zoom call, or quick meeting to deal with it.
Face-to-face or voice-to-voice is almost always more efficient because decisions require dialogue. Even something as simple as scheduling a meeting can go like this:
Jon wants to meet with you Thursday at 10.
What else do I have scheduled that day?
You have X, Y, and Z.
Yeah, but I also have A, B, and C on Friday, so I think that will not work on Thursday. I need to get some projects done Thursday, too, and that was my only quiet window. Does he have any other time?
No, he said Thursday at 10 is his only window.
Oh, can we move my lunch meeting then?
We could move it to next Monday.
I’m planning on taking Monday off.
Great, then let’s make Thursday at ten work and move my lunch to Tuesday.
That’s probably about 11 emails (for real, check your email chain and see how many back and forth and replies and reply-alls are in your inbox).
It’s also about a 60-second conversation. Done.
Train your team to keep a list and deal with it in person, over the phone, or even in a ten-minute stand-up meeting every day.
Well, you ask…what about truly urgent things?
Here’s what I’ve asked my team to do:
Make in-person discussion the default during our meeting time.
Text if it’s truly urgent.
Phone if it’s truly urgent and too complicated for a text and can’t wait for a meeting.
Email for things that don’t fit any of the above categories.
Try this and watch your inbox gloriously shrink. Or play with the formula to see what works for your team.