- Posted by Nigel Edelshain
- On February 6, 2015
I took the plunge a few years ago and I’ve never gone back. I have an empty email inbox.
My empty email inbox comes about from my adoption of Getting Things Done (GTD) system.
From my experience, the main benefits of getting your inbox to “zero” are:
- You won’t miss important items. In the worst case, there will only be several items in your inbox at any one time (before you process them)—not hundreds of items or thousands
- You will feel less stressed. Your brain will just feel better looking at a small list of emails versus an ocean
How to handle incoming email
Let’s imagine you already have an empty inbox (I’ll talk about how to get there from here below.)
Here’s the process for handling every email that comes in.You only have six (6) choices:
1. Do it
Here’s a great rule from David Allen, the creator of GTD: If you can carry out an action in less than 2 minutes then do it now. If you cannot do it in less than 2 minutes, then don’t do it now but put it in your action folder to be done later. You can reply to the sender that you will work on it soon.
2. Put it in your Action folder
Set up a folder in your email program (Outlook or Gmail etc.) that’s called “Action”, or “@Action” if you want it to appear at the top of your folder list in your email program.
Put every incoming email in this folder if (a) it requires that you take action and (2) you cannot complete the action in less than 2 minutes. This is your to-do list.
One nuance to this: There are some “to-do’s” that really have to be done by or on a specific date. Place these as reminders on your calendar. (An example might be writing this blog post, which must be ready to be published by Friday.)
A warning about adding items to your calendar: Only add items to your calendar that must be done by a specific date. Don’t add items to your calendar that you hope will be done by such and such a date. Items that you want to do “as soon as possible” should stay in your “Action” folder; otherwise, you will end up with too much in your calendar and you will suffer the same disheartening affect as having 100’s of emails in your inbox!
3. Delegate and keep a copy
Some of the emails you receive can be delegated to others (for example team members or vendors.) Send these on to other people as they come in. Keep a copy of what you sent others to do in a “Delegated” folder. This will make it easy for you to go back and check that the actions you delegated got done (or not!)
4. Send to others and keep a copy
In a similar way to the “Delegated” folder set up a folder for any emails you send out that require a response from others. Call this folder “Awaiting Reply” or something similar. This will help you find everything where you are waiting on other people to respond.
5. File reference information
A lot of the stuff that comes into our email does not require us to take action. It is reference material. It may be an e-newsletter or an email about a book we might consider buying one day. Get this information out of your workflow right away!
Set up reference folders in your email or in your computer’s file system or use a tool like Evernote or just print this stuff out to stick in hanging folders. By filing it you will know you can find it later should you need it but it’s off your plate (helps with stress!)
A lot of the stuff that comes through email is just not worth keeping. Trash right away and don’t look back!
How to get to zero in the first place
So now you know how to maintain your inbox at zero. But how do you get to an empty inbox in the first place?
Here are those steps:
1. Unsubscribe from e-newsletters
Unsubscribe from all e-newsletters unless they are really useful. You can do this one-by-one using the unsubscribe link in the e-newsletters themselves or if you are subscribed to dozens of newsletters you can use tools like Mailstrom or Unroll.me that can help. Be brutal, you can always sign up to a few of these enewsletters again once you have your inbox under control.
If you really need to keep up with a lot of sources of information, consider switching to an RSS reader.
2. Go back through a month of emails…only
Go back through the last month of emails in your inbox (probably hundreds). Set up the folders described in the first part of this post. Move these emails into the folders as appropriate. Delete everything you can.
But don’t go back more than about a month. Be tough! Go to step #3 after about a month of emails.
3. Sort older emails by sender
For emails older than about a month sort them by sender. Look for senders that are important to you, i.e. clients, your boss etc. Only sort these important emails into the appropriate folders. Go back through say 3 months of these emails. Leave the rest of your old emails in your inbox.
4. Take the plunge!
Now you’ve sorted through all the emails in your inbox for the last month and all the emails in your inbox from important people for the last 3 months. So now have faith! DELETE all the other emails in your inbox!
Most email systems keep deleted emails for 30 days. So if you find something you really need has been deleted, you will have 30 days to fish it out and put it in an appropriate folder.
And that’s it. You will have an empty inbox.
Final Notes on getting to zero
Some final notes from my experience on how to make the transition:
- Turn off your email: This is a general “email sanity tip”. Don’t keep your email active all the time. Close it or put it in “offline mode” for much of the day. Deal with your email in batches, take action on the emails that have come in and file appropriately, as above.
- Customize: We are all different. The stuff above works for me but I’ve adapted it to my preferences. Do the same. Change the system so it feels right for you.
- Have patience: Don’t expect everything to be perfect at the start. Yes, you will miss things at the beginning. A few emails may get lost. Expect a few bumps in the road initially but be assured in the long run you will end up ahead.