Last month I wrote about email batching, controlling the number of times you visit your inbox. From the feedback I received, although batching improves productivity, it doesn’t address the stress of email volumes. My friend Joy is frustrated by an average inbox size of 934 emails! So today I’ll look at how to get your inbox to zero.
First off, you will need to block ample time to clean up whatever is in your inbox right now. I won’t go into the details, but perhaps by the end of this article, you will have a plan for dealing with the backlog. Once your inbox is clean, use a formula of ABCD to manage it proactively. Action, Bin, Compartments, Delegate.
I borrow an idea from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Act immediately on any email that will take you under two minutes to deal with. Gazing at such emails and then coming back later to deal with them is merely a waste of time. As my colleague Haroun used to say, it’s double work. If your organization has the lousy culture of copying people on emails for the sake of copying them, prevent such emails from getting to your inbox by creating rules to deal with “cc” mail.
Once you act on an email and no further action or record is required, bin it. Do not keep it as a trophy in your inbox.
Subscriptions! We sign up for subscriptions, sometimes accidentally and sometimes to take advantage of freebies. As you look through your mail, use the subject header to decide what you don’t need to open, and bin it immediately.
If you need help in managing subscriptions, refer to my tips on using Unroll.me.
This is the most critical part of the formula, so I have more to say about your options.
- You may have dealt with an email, but there is follow-up action required. Move it out of your inbox and into a folder created specifically for things you need to follow up.
- If you need to keep an audit trail for matters already concluded, create reference folders by subject or by type and move the emails there.
- Create appropriate folders for emails that need more than two minutes of your time. For example, a “deferred action” folder or a project folder. These are the folders you will open when you have time to address specifics.
- Use calendar alerts and reminders. If an email is relevant to an upcoming meeting, this will ensure that you get things done ahead of time.
Your inbox is not a diary or a planner. Leaving everything in your inbox creates clutter and does not help you tell at a glance just how much you need to deal with or what is falling through the cracks.
Folders (i.e., compartments) help you arrange things, giving you a better sense of what is on your plate, and you can then tackle stuff in manageable pieces.
A no-brainer if you manage a team. Identify someone who will take action on a particular matter and then delegate immediately.
If your team member is competent, you might not have to keep such emails in any of your folders. You can use weekly chats or meetings to keep yourself updated.
Let the email author know that you have delegated action to your (competent) team member so that they don’t have to write directly to you in case of future developments.
I talked before about managing the time you spend in your inbox. The same principle applies to dealing with emails that take more than two minutes of your time.
Schedule time each day for tackling such emails. It could be an hour or more. For projects that are involving, you may have to schedule a whole day or half a day. This is the time to read related literature, follow up on previous actions, speak to relevant stakeholders, etc. In short, this is the time to make progress on outstanding issues and close some of them.
If you don’t schedule time for action, there will be many days when you touch just a bit of this and just a bit of that, without focus. Isn’t that stressful?
Touch an email only once in your inbox and then move it out of there. Follow the ideas in the ABCD formula to prioritize action, organize your work, and be more productive. Thank me later!