12 Most Wipe-it-Out Tips I Learned on the Way to Inbox Zero

12 Most Wipe-it-Out Tips I Learned on the Way to Inbox Zero

Email Inbox Zero. At times it can feel like the El Dorado of digital organization — everyone thinks it will bring them organizational bounty, but it proves horribly elusive.

However, it can be done. I’ve been there, more than once.

You too can get there — with the help of the dozen top tips I learned along the way.

1. Decide how often you want to be at zero

Having your inbox permanently at zero is impossible. Having messages come in is, after all, half the point of email. As a lot of my work is built around weekly cycles, for me hitting inbox zero at the end of each week is the aim; for you it might be each day.

2. Ease yourself towards the target

Just as with dieting, it is gradual sustained progress that brings permanent improvement. Binge purging emails just gives a short term buzz. Once you have decided when you want to be at zero, take a note of how many emails are in your inbox at that time. Discipline yourself to come in at a lower number each time your goal comes round again until finally one time you are at zero — and only then make sure you stay at zero.

3. Stop using your inbox as a substitute for filing

Quite often there will be an email you have read, responded to but do not want to forget quiet yet. Perhaps you have made an order and don’t want to bury away the confirmation until the goods arrive. That is fine — but do not use your inbox for that. Create a “pending” folder to hold these interim messages. Have a check through of that folder every week and never put messages in there which still need action from you.

4. Speed up replies with standard templates

Some email programs let you write template answers and give this feature an obvious name, such as ‘canned responses’ in Gmail. Other email packages have the same option but hide it under a deceptive name. I have lost count of the number of people I have met who did not make the imaginative leap from realising that a ‘signature’ in Microsoft Outlook could actually be a complete email.

5. Only delay if it will be quicker or easier to reply in the future

Procrastination is one of the great enemies of inbox zero. You see an email and think you just don’t quite want to reply to it now, so you put it off. And next time you see it you put off replying again. And again. It is a very human trait. The answer? Ask yourself if replying at some point in the future will be quicker or easier. Sometimes it will (e.g. because you are waiting for some information), in which case delay is acceptable. But if it isn’t, then reply now. Right now. Really, right now.

6. Quarantine newsletters you are not sure about

I used to be subscribed to far too many newsletters, never quite leaving them because there was always one story that was just interesting enough to make me hang on. The answer is to automatically sideline your questionable newsletters into a folder where you do not read them. Then once a month look through the folder and ask yourself if you really missed out not reading those old emails. If not, bingo — unsubscribing you go. If you really, really have missed out — then stop redirecting that newsletter.

7. Purge the periodic email lists

Cutting my newsletter addiction was good, but I quickly realised as big an issue was the irregular notification email lists, such as occasional news from software firms whose products I use. The uber-quick read followed by a swift delete turns out not to be efficient because a few moments of extra thought and then hitting the unsubscribe option is what you really need to do.

8. Report spam

There is a similar tip about spam which manages to sneak its way past your email provider’s filters. Spam filters have improved enormously in the last few years and are now normally good at learning quickly from their mistakes. That makes reporting an email as spam/junk worth doing, because the chances are it will help cut off other messages that are headed towards your inbox.

9. Tame the social network notification messages

It can be really handy to have an email prompt when some particular actions take place on a social network. I used to have Twitter set up to email me whenever I got a direct message for example, as mine are usually about something urgent. Except I then realised I now check Twitter sufficiently often (that is a whole other story!) that the email almost never gave me much of an extra notice. But it was another source of emails to tame. Off went that notification setting.

If you really do need some notification emails, consider using a service such as NutshellMail to aggregate them into round-up messages that cut the volume down.

10. Pre-empt follow up emails with more comprehensive replies

Some conversations do require several emails back and forth. However, extra messages are often generated simply because a message only does half the job. If there is an obvious follow up question to what you write, then cover that as well in the original email. Most obviously, if you are agreeing to meet someone, suggest the time and place all in one message, saving on the follow ups to fix those too.

11. Archive, don’t delete

If you are focusing on dealing with emails quickly and decisively, including liberal use of the delete button, mistakes will sometimes happen. Rather than permanently deleting emails, it is therefore better for you either to archive rather than delete or only periodically empty your deleted items folder. That way, there is always a safety net to go back to — and when the occasional mistake does happen, it won’t through you off your inbox zero mojo.

12. And finally… excuse brevity

It is all too easy to misunderstand the tone of voice in an email, in particular to confuse efficient brevity with abrupt rudeness. That is a particular danger with clearing out emails whilst you are away from your desk on smartphone or tablet. There is a simple solution. Change the default email signature advertising the manufacturer (e.g. “Sent from my iPad”) to one that helps (“Sent from tablet whilst on the move, so please excuse any brevity”). With that, a few short “yes” and “no” replies come over as helpful efficiency, not terse hostility.

How do you wipeout your inbox?

Featured image courtesy of Creative Commons. 

Mark Pack

http://www.markpack.org.uk

Dr. Mark Pack is Head of Digital at MHP Communications, one of the top ten communications consultancies by revenue in the UK. He is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, the most widely-read Liberal Democrat blog in the UK, and a member of the Open Rights Group’s Advisory Council. In 2011 he was short-listed for Public Affairs News’sTweeter of the Year. He has contributed to 19 books and is a fellow of the RSA.

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13 comments
jpjeremy3607
jpjeremy3607

I file every email, quickly. While I admit to having several accounts in active use, it is rare for any of them to have more than a dozen emails, even though I receive several hundred emails each day.

One thing I have learned. Have one folder to file in. Searching emails is easy, all you need is a "from" name, a date range, or a word in the subject line. The time it takes to file emails in one of dozens of organizing folders is a waste.

NichM
NichM

One of them I think should be overestimated is the tone. Sometimes I'll just type, "Sure" or "Ok" and people will think it rude because I didn't say, "Yes that'd be great I can't wait!"

Be efficient online and in real life be polite.

dbvickery
dbvickery

I went into social networks and greatly reduced the notifications. In cases where they supported daily/weekly digests, I chose those. Then I created rules in Outlook to route emails to appropriate folders (and I have a lot of folders).

Even then, I will see that Inbox go over 100, and I generally try to keep it to about 30 messages or less.

spofcher
spofcher

Mark - This is a great list of tools to get to the ever-elusive zero inbox.

I agree with rosemaryoneill, a quick phone call can relieve the agony of on-going, back & forth emails.

#4 - You can add me to the list of those who never thought about the "imaginative leap from realising that a ‘signature’ in Microsoft Outlook could actually be a complete email." Great idea.

#9 - I am going to turn off my Twitter alert right now.

#6 & 7. I always subscribe to too many blogs and newsletters - and then don't have the time to read them. Also many provide duplicate information. Purging sometimes feels good.

I belong to 50 LinkedIn discussion groups. I turn off many of their alerts and only keep the ones that I really want.

rosemaryoneill
rosemaryoneill

Awesome list; I've been procrastinating on a few of these! I'd add one more: Pick up the phone! I have circumvented a 10-email chain with one simple phone call more than once. Email can be easier because it's more impersonal and gives you time to consider your answer, but picking up the phone can be like ripping off the band-aid. It's done.

Peg Fitzpatrick
Peg Fitzpatrick

Oooo I am so working on some standard templates. Email is such a pain these days.

I will be working through your list of suggestions and HOPEFULLY getting closer to zero inbox.

Great post!

Martin D Redmond
Martin D Redmond

Very informative post Mark! My email box is a challenge, and you've given me some actionable ideas for how to get to zero more often! Thanks!

DrRhia
DrRhia

I love your #10 comment about brevity. I'm brief and have been misinterpreted so many times. In the interest of brevity, I've reduced the blog I'd like you to visit and share http://ow.ly/8X6gx

susansilver
susansilver

Great Tips! I finally started using inbox zero methods last year. It saved a ton of time. There is lot more you can ignore than you think sometimes. It just takes some bravery!

MarkPack
MarkPack

@spofcher Ah yes, the phone call - that 19th century technology :) Still very useful!

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