How Inbox Zero Will Make You Crazy Organized in 15 Minutes or Less
Inbox Zero is a simple concept: it means that you have nothing in your inbox.
If you’re like most people, the last time you had nothing in your inbox was when you opened your email account. As someone who’s been using Inbox Zero for nearly 2 years, seeing the “bottom” of my inbox on a regular basis is liberating.
Inbox Zero is a process that keeps you on top of everything, all while reducing distractions and stress. It helps you dominate your to-do list and keeps your inbox lean and manageable, even on those crazy weeks we all have once in a while.
So in this article, I’ll walk you through two things:
- How you’re wasting tons of time by just “checking your email”
- How to reach Inbox Zero in 15 minutes or less
Messy Inbox = Wasted Time
Do you have a system for checking your email?
If you’re like most marketing people, the answer is “no”. You just open your inbox every morning, look at the intimidating stack of of unread items, throw some stuff on your to-do list, then get on with your day.
If I just described how you deal with email, you desperately need to try Inbox Zero.
Email is a central part of our lives. We check it several times a day, even while on vacation. Some people even have it open the whole day (which is terrible, but we can save that for another article). We spend a crapload of time in our inboxes but never think about how to optimize that time.
Every time you load your email and it has a zillion items (read or unread), you are:
Wasting Time Re-reading Subject Lines of Old Emails
This is a massive killer of your time.
Not only does re-reading old subject lines cost you time – the physical cost of your eyes scanning left-to-right – but also energy. Once your eyes read something, it relays that information to the brain, which now has to decide what to do with that information.
But it only takes me a second to re-read something. What’s the big deal?
Fair enough, but let’s look at this example. Let’s say for whatever reason you need to look up an invoice for an ad agency you’re working with. So you open your email. But while looking through your inbox you glance at an older email for another project.
Now, your brain briefly takes you off-task as it thinks about that project and all the associations that come with it: the deadlines, the next steps, what your boss thinks about it, the team member who you hate working with, and so on.
These associations can cause you to get unnecessarily stressed out, sapping time and energy that could’ve been used for something else more productive.
And that’s just ONE subject line.
I’ve seen people who have 2-year old emails sitting in their inbox. Why?!
Why are you wasting your precious brain energy on something that you clearly will not take action on? Do you have a stack of 2-year old newspapers lying around in your house too?
Wasting Time Fighting Cognitive Overload
This is how your brain reacts when it sees your messy inbox:
This micro-freakout stresses you out a little, costing you time and energy you’ll never get back. And you do this EVERY TIME you load your inbox!
It’s the same reason why your brain hates Powerpoint slides with way too much text. Your brain goes into a minor panic when it thinks it has to process so much information in a short time.
Wasting Time Looking For Emails
Whenever I’m in a meeting and someone says “hold on, let me find that email”, I want to die.
Because for most people, “finding that email” means scrolling through their messy inbox, which is a painful way to waste everyone’s time. Especially if they’re projecting their screen and everyone is watching them fumble through their mail.
Inbox Zero forces you to file (or label) things properly so that if this happens to you, you know exactly where to look.
Wasting Time Waiting For Your Inbox to Load
Simply, an inbox with a near-zero number of items will take less time to load than one that has 1,000. You check your email dozens of times a week at minimum. This adds up.
How to Inbox Zero: Open it, Act on it, Archive It
If I had 5 seconds to teach you Inbox Zero, I would say:
Open an email
→ Perform an action based on the email message
→ Archive email
Repeat until you have nothing in your inbox.
It really isn’t any more complicated than that.
So let’s do it right now. Load your email, take a deep breath, and follow the steps below.
1. Get Rid of Old Emails
- Search for all emails over a month old
- Select all then Mark As Read (Stop lying to yourself – if you haven’t acted on it by now, then you won’t act on it this month and especially not next month. If it’s that important, it will pop up again)
- Archive all these old emails
In Gmail, you can use this search operator, replacing the date as needed:
I recommend archiving instead of deleting because you never know when you’ll need an email. In this age of multi-gig email storage, there really is no need for you to be stingy and delete your emails. This isn’t 2002 Hotmail and you won’t max out your 15MB of storage.
Everything in your inbox should only include items within the last 30 days.
2. File Away Non-Action Emails
- Select emails don’t require any action (e.g. notifications, receipts, office discussions, etc)
- Put them in folders or labels as necessary
- Mark all as Read, then Archive
You’ve just put recent emails in their proper place.
The only emails in your inbox are those that are recent and require an action right now. This means you need to read these emails, and after you finish reading them you need to do something about them.
Open the remaining emails one-by-one and follow this framework:
3. Do Something About The Email Right Now
- If it takes < 2 minutes to do, do it NOW (e.g. Set up a meetings, quick replies, etc)
- If it takes > 2 minutes, schedule it on your calendar
The critical part here is scheduling it on your calendar, then respecting that schedule. This means you’re telling yourself that this task MUST be done by a specific time – you’re not just putting it off indefinitely.
You’re done! Empty Inbox!
Final Tips To Make Inbox Zero Work For You
I’ve been using this system to manage my email for nearly 2 years now, and it’s been a godsend on those days where you get a never-ending stream of messages.
Here’s a few last thoughts before you try it on your own:
Clear Your Inbox The Same Time Every Day
Set a specific time to clear out your inbox every day. Whether it’s the first thing you do, right after lunch, or right before you go home, train yourself to have the discipline to regularly clear out as much of your inbox as possible.
Sometimes, you can’t get to zero, but that’s fine. Preventing pile-up and having the discipline to keep a clean mailbox is a big accomplishment in itself.
Stop Checking Email Every Hour
When I first tried Inbox Zero, I got obsessed with it and tried to keep my inbox as “clean” as possible. It felt good to get to zero but it was at the expense of doing actual work!
The point is not to perpetually have zero inbox items (which is impossible anyway); the point is to turn emails into concrete, actionable tasks or file away when no longer needed.
So train yourself to check your email only at certain times. Personally, I do so every 3 hours and spend no more than 10-15 minutes converting emails into tasks. There is no need to have it constantly open – you’re just asking to be distracted.
If something is extremely urgent you’ll get a phone call or someone will walk to your desk.
More Inbox Zero Theory
Before you go on a Google spree and read more about Inbox Zero, make sure to watch the original Inbox Zero presentatino from Merlin Mann. In addition to being a great talk, the slides are well-designed and an easy read.
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