How do you feel when your inbox is overflowing, cluttered, or overwhelming? Stressful, isn’t it? When things are cluttered or piled in your physical life, it can stifle productivity and create barriers for you to be at your best. Email is no different. The Inbox Zero philosophy can be a major step to improving that in your digital life.
Last month was MACUL 2015, the biggest educational technology conference in Michigan. One the first day of the conference, I was on the bus with some other educators heading over to the opening ceremonies. Within five minutes of being on the bus, I struck up a conversation with an educator from west Michigan who was telling me about his presentation at the conference on email productivity.
I was intrigued and asked for more. In a matter of moments, another educator from the same area of the state sat down by us and joined the conversation. They both were evangelizing “Inbox Zero” and all these productivity tools and techniques to help achieve it. Being mostly unfamiliar, I requested the biggest idea of the topic, and that’s when everything changed.
Our conversation progressed on the short transit to the conference from the parking deck and I learned so much about Inbox Zero before even entering the conference, that I had to put it to use immediately. I did just that, and my inbox hasn’t been the same ever since. I’ve shared it with some others and now, I’d like to pass on what I learned to you.
What’s Inbox Zero?
In “real life,” some people are pilers. Mail, bills, and documents pile up and get pushed to the side as an ever-present reminder of things that need attention. Waiting patiently for “that day” where there will be enough time to go through the pile and process everything seems to never workout the way it should. Funny, huh? Well, in digital life those same habits result in cluttered inboxes with ignored messages, disorganized file folders, and bookmark lists that are never-ending.
This month, we are tackling the email monster that can consume educators’ lives with a philosophy and practice known as “Inbox Zero.” The philosophy is to always end the day with nothing left in your email inbox. This doesn’t mean you simply ignore your inbox as a rule or delete everything, but rather you commit to process every message in some way as it comes in before the day closes.
There are many different great apps to help you manage email on the go, including Microsoft’s new, including Microsoft’s new Outlook app. And all of these are great to manage email, but getting to a point where you can manage means first digging out of the email pit, if you’re in one. That’s where Inbox Zero is really helpful.
You can find a variety of approaches out there, including this one from LifeHacker, but we’ll get you the Cliffs Notes of what we found to work well. The first principle of achieving Inbox Zero is the mindset shift from hoard-and-protect your messages to hoard-and-protect your sanity!
Step 1: Empty your inbox!
No, seriously. Empty. Your. Inbox.
The easiest way we found to do this was to move every message that’s currently in your inbox into your email archive. With the robust searching features of email nowadays, you can easily find a message you need later anyway. And it’s likely that, if you can’t remember enough about it to search it, then it wasn’t that important maybe. If the thought of doing this brings your blood pressure up, then, like we did, you might want to give the first page or two of your most recent emails a quick scan for anything crucial that could require special processing into email folders. The folks at MooMooMath explain folders for this purpose well here.
Step 2: Create processing routines.
Once things are out of your digital way and your previously cluttered inbox content has been archived, you can start dealing with messages as they come in. It’s like spring cleaning your house. Get the piles out of your main living space and into your closets, storage boxes, or other out-of-sight place. Now, focus on how you will process the messages as they start to come in. You’ll want to have some parameters for yourself, and set limits that are attainable for you. We like these:
- If you can respond in under 2 minutes (and you have those 2 minutes,) respond now. Next, archive it. If the recipient responds back, it’ll return to your inbox anyway.
- Delete, unsubscribe, or archive “junk” email. Some email is totally junk that you’ll never use, so why keep getting it? Take the 90 seconds and unsubscribe. Or, use a free service like Unroll Me to do the dirty work for you en masse. For the pseudo-junk that you’d like to still get and use every so often, either create a new folder (or filter rule, courtesy of Vicki Davis.)
- If the email is a “need to know” (f.k.a. “memo”) then read and archive it.
- If the message requires more than 2 minutes of attention, then schedule it to come back to your inbox (using one of the apps linked above) at a time where you can dig in more.
Step 3: Make a game out of it.
Challenge yourself each day to clear the inbox using your processing routines. You can block off a chunk of time for yourself to do this, like you would schedule exercise or TV time. Limit yourself to 10-15 minutes max, and stick with it. While you’ll tackle email in an ongoing fashion, this set time will be your failsafe to get to Inbox Zero each day. There’s even a handy email game, which times you, to accomplish this.
Once you achieve your first day or so of Inbox Zero, you’ll probably question the legitimacy of the silence. You’ll think you’ve missed a message, that someone is trying to contact you and you’ve prevented them from doing so, or even reflect on whether people still care about you. All of these feelings are completely natural and will go away after a short time. Breaking any habit requires time and replacement of the dopamine-inducing rush created by the habit with something else. So, try doing something else you love with your new found freedom and inbox-liberated time. Go for a walk, play with the kids, get a coffee, or just meditate on how awesome you are for achieving Inbox Zero!
After a while, the practice of executing the Inbox Zero will feel like a game that’s well worth winning, and that winning will create the dopamine-induced feeling of reward that begins to drive you to make yourself more email productive. Others will find out you have accomplished the unachievable and beg you to share your secrets.
Step 4: Make it your own.
These steps and ideas listed here are a framework for achieving Inbox Zero that I’ve found successful along with others with whom I work. You’ll ultimately want to make your own process for this, but these steps are a great place to start.
So go forward to the promise land of Inbox Zero. Be proud of arriving there once you reach the destination, but then don’t forget to pay it forward by sharing your techniques with others!
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