Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. ― Gertrude Stein
So how many emails are in your inbox right now? If you’re like most people there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. I know a couple folks that still have over a thousand.
What good is that? Don’t you feel overwhelmed just by looking at it? How is that respecting yourself?
I used to be that way, with well over a couple hundred emails in my inbox at any one time. When it got to be too many, I’d resort the inbox by sender and mass delete emails from people that I considered to be a lower priority than other people. Yes, I really did that. Not exactly respect for people, let alone mindful of the problems it could create for them and the organization.
A few years ago I came across a blog post touting “Inbox: Zero.” Really? Zero emails in your inbox? I gave it a try and haven’t looked back since. I can’t remember the last time I had more than ten emails in my inbox, and I try to get to zero by each evening.
I can’t describe how liberating it is. I can also give far better attention, mindfully, to the few remaining emails, thereby generating more thoughtful and focused response, respecting those senders and their issues.
To stay near or at Inbox: Zero takes effort and discipline, which needs to turn into habit.
- Aggressively unsubscribe from newsletters and promotional emails, unless you are willing to read them within one day. With the ones that remain, move them to a “To Read” folder immediately, or via an email rule.
- Aggressively remove yourself from group distribution lists that are not critical.
- If you were just cc’d or bcc’d on an email, scan quickly and make every attempt to not reply, then delete. Ask to remove yourself from the chain if your attention isn’t critical to the matter.
- Add (or decline) invitations to your calendar immediately. Be aggressive about declining if you don’t believe the meeting adds value – remember the Just Say No section above.
- Try to take action (or respond) to an email immediately when ever possible. Otherwise move it to a “To-Do” folder. I’ve now become good enough at this that my inbox is my residual to-do folder, generally with less than five. Many people say this is the worst use for an inbox, but with so few emails it works well.
There are cultural aspects you can help drive as well. First, be very judicious about who is copied on emails, and insist others respect your time as well. An “FYI,” if truly needed in the first place, does not need to be sent to a broad audience – that’s generally more a “CYA.” Second, insist that any desired action be very clearly stated in an email, right at the top. Third, be very concise with original and reply emails. I had a big problem with this, and was known as the king of the long-winded (sometimes flaming) email. I continue to struggle with being too wordy, and have a goal to try to keep emails to three sentences or less.
There are other aspects to email management that are more productivity hacks. For example, I try to only open and check email four times a day, keeping in line with the pomodoro method I described earlier. I hope to reduce that to three times next year. I have turned off auto-checking on my phone so I don’t get disturbed with each new email. And I aggressively clear out old saved emails. They may not technically cost anything, and they are searchable history, but they still seem like “clutter.” I am now actually very close to not only Inbox: Zero, but also Mailbox: Zero. Do you really need to save everything? Really?
How about phone and voicemail? I have never been a fan of using the phone, although I know it is often a more effective and immediate communication tool. I prefer to receive an email so I can properly contemplate and formulate a response. Many organizations, such as Coca Cola, are turning off their voicemail systems to push people to use email or live phone conversations.
Because of this, and because people know I’m not very good at responding to phone calls, I don’t have a problem with voicemails. If I did I’d probably manage very similarly to my email inbox: aggressively filter, and respond immediately. One system that I do have that I love is that any incoming voicemails are also sent to my email inbox. There’s even a service that will auto transcribe them into the email, so I don’t have to listen to the audio – and they are searchable. I know several people that like sending audio messages via email, but in my opinion they are wasteful to the receiver as they cannot be quickly scanned and searched. My friend Paul Akers uses them very effectively, but I know others that take two minutes to convey ten seconds of information – which isn’t respecting my time.