W Christian Consulting

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Zero Inbox–Email Management

In this post, I’ll tell you how to achieve the zero inbox. The other day, I heard someone say that an empty inbox is an unreasonable goal. I whole-heartedly disagree! Not only is it a reasonable goal but given the accumulated hours of your life wasted scanning your inbox for a particular message or figuring out what to read next, it should be everyone’s goal.

I recommend your basic one-touch system.  So despite what looks like a list of steps below, there’s really only one step: Step 1.

Prep. Set up a filing system
Before your begin going through your email, set up folders for your major email subject areas.  The key is to find the sweet spot between generic and specific while also creating categories that should have minimal overlap.
For example, at home, most of my emails are about each of our children (mostly school related), family & friends, church, online purchases, and travel.  I used to have a folder for each missionary we support, but they’ve all been collapsed into a single “missions” folder. For work email, I have a folder for professional development, computer accounts, payroll, and each project I’m working on.  For long-running projects, I have a subfolder for the month (e.g., Project X-2014-05, Project X-2014-06) but not for the various subtasks of the project.
Step 0. Start from scratch.
This step should really be “Delete it all”.  OK, that’s a bit rash but it is so much easier to maintain a zero inbox than it is to try to get there while the messages are still coming in.
If you’re not willing to delete it all, here’s a compromise: Move all your messages to another folder that you can triage later. Set a realistic target date (one or two months depending on how much there is) for getting through that folder using any extra time of what you’ve allotted to Step 1. If you don’t get to them by your target date, you can probably forget about them.
Step 1. The Only Step You Need.
Schedule blocks of time during which you will read email and deal with the messages immediately. With physical and electronic mail, the key to avoiding clutter is the one-touch system–dealing with things immediately.
So how do you deal with the email?  Emails fall into 4 basic categories: spam, information, invitations, and requests for action or response. Most of these can be handled pretty quickly. Of course, spam gets deleted. Informational messages are read and filed (or deleted). Invitations are accepted (and added to your calendar immediately) or declined (and deleted). Actions are performed and responses are provided. Done.  Close your mail viewer until your next scheduled email time.
The key is to only read your email when you’ve allotted enough time to handle things and make decisions immediately.
Step 1*.
Sometimes you do need a little more time to consider and reply to a request for action or response. In that case, schedule a time on your calendar to handle it.  The best time would be adjacent to another block of email time.

If you follow this one step, you too can have a zero inbox; it really is as simple as that. To be honest, though, I don’t follow it religiously and I don’t have a zero inbox. Instead, I maintain is a one-page inbox. If I need to scroll my inbox window to see all my messages, it’s too long and I go through a mini purge (Step 0).

In a future post (my next one?), I’ll list a few nice Microsoft Outlook features for keeping the system going and for managing email in general.