Inbox Zero is the near-mythical state of completely emptying your email inbox, and devotees aim to repeat that on a regular basis (ideally every day). I’m a devotee of Inbox Zero in the same sense that I’m a devotee of surfing, in that I love the sound of it and I own a board but I’ve only actually managed it a few times and once I got salt water in my sinuses and thought I was going to die. OK, clumsy analogy. I’m a devotee in the same way as someone who puts Catholic as their religion on an application form despite not going to church or believing in God or being against contraception. No, that’s worse. I think it’s a worthy ideal, and something to strive for, is what I’m trying to say, I just don’t actually get there very often.
You may be sympathetic to my failure. For some people clearing their inbox might not actually be a laughable prospect, because they don’t get that much email, but I don’t know who those people and I don’t like the sound of them. Most of us these days are drowning under email, and I know quite a few people with unread emails well into the hundreds. I once glanced at the iPhone of a friend, who works as a Successful Professional, and noticed the little bubble over his Mail app was in the thousands. Who knew it even goes that high? I don’t know how he sleeps at night. But I bet he’s not the only one.
For my personal email, I manage my Gmail account using the Mailbox app on my iPhone. The two core gimmicks are that from the inbox you swipe left or right to quickly archive, delete or move the email, and you can schedule emails to come back when they’re relevant, sending away the confirmation of a hotel booking until the day you’re due to check in, or something about work until Monday morning. Since it was released those features have been added into a few other apps, including Inbox (for Gmail) and even the Outlook app, but after trying a few options I’m sticking with Mailbox because it’s simple and effective. I completely empty my inbox every day, with a minimum of fuss.
At work, it’s a completely different picture. I don’t have the advantages of Gmail and I’m limited to a prescribed secure app, which is fine but doesn’t have any of those neat features for quick email processing. I struggle to keep up. It comes in waves; every year or so I manage to clear my inbox, but it just keeps on coming and if I’m on the road, or take a vacation, or get sick, or just have a busy week, it builds up again before I realize it. It’s not uncommon for me to have more than 500 emails in my inbox, with perhaps 200 of them unread.
I find it sucks all the energy out of me. It’s definitely inefficient because it prevents you from prioritizing correctly; no matter how carefully I manage my to-do list, there might be dozens of important tasks (and hundreds of unimportant ones) sitting in my inbox that I haven’t even read yet, so I’m not looking at the complete picture. I’ve also completed a task only to be told it was no longer needed. “Didn’t you see my follow-up email?” Gah.
A few years ago I remember seeing lots of articles about declaring “email bankcrupcy”, the idea that you just give up, delete everything in your inbox, and tell people you’re starting over, dealing with the consequences. I’ve never had the courage to do that but I once, in a previous job, got so underwater that I just moved all the emails that were over a month old from my inbox into a folder marked “old emails I haven’t read”. I intended to work through those day by day until I cleared them. A few months later I had managed to stay on top of new incoming emails, but I hadn’t even opened that folder. I stressed about it, the madwoman in my attic, for a while until I realized that no-one cared. Aside from a few exceptions where people had simply emailed me again, no-one even noticed. People in large companies are apparently now so accustomed to the idea that we’re all so busy, and that their email is one of hundreds, that they no longer expect for sure that you’ll get to them. I’m not actually advocating just deleting everything, and there might well be professional consequences, but it’s probably not as bad as it sounds.
By the way, entreprenurial idea for a company: you give us your work username and password and we log into your inbox and delete everything, then make it look like you were the victim of a computer error. “I know, Henry, I was just about to action that important deliverable you requested last month but now … *sob* I lost everything, man”. Now looking for seed money. Call me, or light the dollar sign bat-signal or whatever Venture Capitalists use to communicate.
These days I struggle, but just about stay afloat. My inbox stands at around 500 emails, with 150 unread. This week’s objective then is to get that to zero and zero.
If you too are tempted to attempt this, you’re going to need to accept a few principles. The first is that your inbox is an inbox, not a holding place, to-do list, or anything else. You don’t go to your post box, read all your letters, pick out the one you need then put all the rest back (or if you do, you’re probably beyond help). Because every time you open your mailbox to see what’s new you have to go through the same discovery process you already did for those that remain.
Principle 1: When you open something, you deal with it. Nothing stays.
The second is that you don’t have to complete the task contained within to deal with the email itself. You’re just processing, filtering, deciding what the task is. Doing tasks and processing emails are two different mindsets, so do them seperately.
Principle 2: Emails are not tasks. Use a to-do list.
The third is that you don’t need to keep everything. Somewhere between archiving and Gmail we’ve been trained to think that we should keep every little notification and thank you for your purchase and and scrap of information. Most of it actually has a pretty short shelf life before it becomes useless. Sure, computer storage is getting bigger and cheaper all the time, but living in a mansion doesn’t mean you should be a hoarder. It makes it harder to find the stuff you actually need.
Principle 3: Email is not a life-log. Delete everything you can.
By the way, you know all those emails you get that you might need for a short while but could then delete? Instead of filing them forever I move them to a folder called “delete after three months”. Then every so often I go into that folder and delete everything older than three months without looking at them.
OK, let’s do this. Here’s my strategy for emptying your work inbox:
- Block a couple of hours in your calendar. Turn off your instant messenger and shut down your browser. Put your phone in another room.
- Search your inbox for the word “unsubscribe”. That will find all the newsletters and notifications. Sort by sender and, without opening anything, scan the subjects and file or preferably delete. If you find something that isn’t a newsletter or notification, ignore it for now.
- Sort your inbox by date received and move emails that are over three months old to a folder called something like “unread emails from 2014”. Now, sort that folder by sender and move anything from your boss, or their boss, back to your inbox. We’re not going to worry about those that remain; if no-one has shouted at us by now they’re probably no longer relevant, but we’ll hang on to them in case we need to find something later.
- Set your email client to show you the number of emails in the inbox, not the number of unread emails. This removes the temptation to mark things as read without dealing with them, or to mark things as unread as a reminder to do something. In Outlook you can do this by right-clicking the inbox folder icon on the left and changing the properties.
- Group by conversations. Gmail does this automatically, and Outlook handles it well too these days. This lets you deal with a group of related emails at once and helps make sure you’re looking at the latest information.
- Start reading. From the top of bottom, doesn’t really matter. When you’re using conversation view, email chains with a recent response float to the top, but that doesn’t mean they’re the youngest.
- If the email doesn’t require a specific action, file or delete it as necessary. Put non-essential long-reads in a folder called “long-reads” to come back to when you’re on an unnecessary conference call. Put essential long-reads in a to-do list.
- If the email does require a specific action, and you can act on it in 2 minutes or less, do it. Otherwise, add it to your to-do list and file the request.
- If you don’t know the answer someone is looking for, and it’s not really your job to know, then politely reply with “I don’t know” and file the email.
- If you can’t clear everything in one go, commit to a significant batch like one month’s worth or 150 emails, and set aside time for the next batch. Do them in as close to one day as you can because those emails are going to keep coming, and there’s nothing more dispiriting than returning to find your progress undermined by a pile of new stuff. If you can, work all night until it’s done. Then book a morning off, or whatever you need, but get it done.
It is an amazing feeling when you finally see that empty inbox. Seriously, even though your to-do list might now be fat with tasks, you’ll feel so much better to know that you have them all in one place. I know because I actually did clear my emails. I tried to do it one day, then failed, then got busy in meetings, then found an afternoon I could block out, then worked late, then emptied my inbox. I was elated. For a few minutes, before the next email arrived, but that’s OK. If I can plough through three months, I can handle the new stuff on a daily basis. Especially now I can think clearly.
- Difficulty: Hard
- Worthwhiliness: High
Header image is “Drowning in email” by Xavier Vergés