When you’re drowning in email and handling it at 2am on a Sunday morning, inbox zero might seem like nothing but a far-fetched dream of email management, but it doesn’t have to be. You really can have a completely clean inbox every single day, but it will require a bit more work than “select all > delete”.
What we’re going to dive into is more of a lifestyle change than a fat-loss diet. As such, you’re going to need to change your behavior somewhat. What follows is a method that I’ve been using for the past year or so, heavily adopted and modified from my friend Tim Miles’ methods.
Inbox Zero = Time Management
Let’s get the first thing straight – Email takes time, and it is an important part of your day. Treat it as such. Dedicate a period in your day to handling email, or nothing in this process will work. I’ve generally found that if I schedule 1 hour per day, I will finish long before the hour is complete.
This is not to say that you can ignore your inbox all day long, only opening it at 4pm. Critical situations arise, and you’ll need to monitor for them. But what I’ve found is that almost everything that comes in via email can be handled at a later time. Instant messaging, phone calls and VoIP chat tend to be where emergent problems get communicated.
Now that you’ve set aside your email time, you need to let people know that you won’t be handling email until that time (or those times, if you choose to do smaller, more frequent sections). Set up an auto-responder with a message like this:
Thanks for your message. I only check email at 10am and 4pm [tell the sender your time zone] so you can expect a reply around these times. If your need is truly urgent, you can reach me via [Skype, phone, etc.].
You won’t always need to use the auto-responder, but it’s handy to be able to turn it on when you’re overwhelmed or if you simply need to focus your efforts elsewhere. Also, don’t be afraid to hand out your Skype or other direct contact information. It has been my experience that only the lowest of people will classify their press release or other non-emergent message as being important enough to call you…and you never have to answer.
Gather Your Tools
I have used, and then stopped using, a number of email management tools over the years. Most of them simply don’t fit my personal workflow. But that’s not to say that they do not have worth. Most of them are great, but I choose to have my tools fit my methods, rather than the other way around. That said, here are a few standouts and must-haves.
- Mailbox – Email as a to-do list. Currently iOS-only and Gmail-only.
- The Email Game – Earn points for answering/handling email. Use this as your first-line defense.
- Read-later Services – Instapaper and Pocket are my favorites. Use them for anything interesting, but unimportant that gets shared with you.
- Folders & Filters – Be diligent with these. Gmail’s new folders work pretty well, but you need self-assigned ones as well for things like bills, current projects, etc. Set up filtering rules when applicable. Anything that isn’t in your inbox is something that you can handle when time allows. But don’t move things away just to avoid them.
- A To-Do List – It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as it works for you. But this is where you’re going to move task-based emails instead of letting them sit. I use a combination of Flow for more project-based tasks, and Apple’s Reminders for the little things.
- Clean Contacts – There’s nothing more annoying to me in an email than starting to type someone’s name, then having and old email address appear. Take the time to make sure that your contacts are up to date and de-duplicated. It’s a slow process, but the FullContact Address Book will fully automate it very soon.
Define Your Process
My personal email schedule is set at 10am and 4pm. As such, I dedicate 30 minutes at both of these times to firefighting. This is where Tim’s process comes in. I prefer this particular order, as it helps me to feel accomplished at every step instead of skipping from one type of email to another:
- If you can handle it in under 2 minutes, do it now.
- Keep your replies short. I like the 3 Sentences method.
- Move all task-based emails to your to-do list.
- File important emails that don’t require a reply.
- Move interesting emails (like the FullContact Playbook) to your read-later service.
- Delete anything that you’re not using right now.
- Turn on auto-reply, go about your day.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Like anything that’s worth doing, this process only works if you stick to it. Decide to take a few days away, handling your email the old way and you’ll quickly find yourself overwhelmed again. The first time that you go through the steps, expect them to take longer than the 30 minutes or hour that you’ve allocated. We’re working hard to make these processes easy, and we can’t wait to show you what’s behind the curtain.
You deserve a better address book. FullContact has the answer.
Image Credit: Ann Wuyts via Flickr Creative Commons