How the real secrets of inbox zero put hours back in my week

When someone catches a glimpse of my email inbox, they usually make a comment about how few emails are there. Co-workers especially, since they have an appreciation for how much email we get in an average day–and they know that I do in fact respond to emails. Just a little over five years ago, the concept of inbox zero, having literally no email in your inbox, seemed like complete fantasy.

matt's actual inbox with inbox zero

Here’s a screenshot of one of my inboxes. As of this writing my primary work and personal inboxes each have one item in them.

In my work inbox alone I was getting 200-300 emails every work day–with about half of them ending with some sort of to-do item or request from me. The sound of an email arriving on my iPhone 3GS (back before you could set your own sound) actually made me physically cringe. It seemed like all I could do was fight through it to make sure that the “important” emails didn’t slip through the cracks. This was a battle that I was not winning.

To put some numbers to this–an average of 30 seconds per email (including responses, if needed), that would be up to 2.5 solid hours per day just dealing with email. That doesn’t include any of the research or real work that needed to be done.

It was with that realization that I started a journey to see what was in my control to try solving the problem. That’s when I found an article about Inbox Zero.

I didn’t actually save the that first article I read, but I very badly wanted that better future where I wasn’t drowning in email. I tried really hard to follow the advice to set up filters, automate similar replies, and identify the appropriate action for emails. There were still a lot of important emails coming in that demanded my attention.

I had become more efficient with processing email–but the speed and volume of email wouldn’t let me get to inbox zero. I didn’t have a chance as long as the circumstances stayed out of balance.

The first secret I learned: Slow the flow of email

Before you say, “hey Matt that’s great and all, but I can’t change how fast email is coming in” just give me a chance to explain what I mean.
By analyzing my email (through a categorization exercise that initially added to my email time) I found that there were a few categories that stuck out to me:

  • Emails asking about the status of previous emails
  • Rapid-fire back-and-forth emails (almost like exchanging text messages)

Depending on the day, up to 1/3 of my email fell into one of these two categories. That’s up to 100 emails a day! What seemed especially notable was that both of these are areas where I might be able to cut down the amount of these emails. I did! I won’t sugar-coat it–this isn’t an easy process, but it was a total game changer that made inbox zero within reach.

The method I used was to work with people to reset expectations with people that were sending me email requests. Setting expectations is so important in life, even with things like how you communicate through email. Doing this virtually eliminated this type of email–saving me an average of nearly an hour every single day.

The second secret I learned: Living in an inbox zero mindset

By slowing the flow of email and using techniques to efficiently process email, I have been able to get my inbox nice and tidy. But here’s the thing–it’s not always at zero emails. It’s usually between one and 20 emails, but sometimes it rises above that level.

An important part of inbox zero for me is recognizing that I don’t need to fret about whether I literally have zero things in my inbox. There will always be another email that comes in, sometime, whether it’s in 3 seconds or 3 hours, it’s coming and it’s completely outside of my control.

Focusing my energy on the things I can control is a core part of how I manage my time. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that I regularly remind myself of, and an important practice to keep in mind with respect to inbox zero.

I very much can control how deliberate I am when processing my email. I don’t let myself go into my inbox constantly looking for new email. In fact, I turn notifications off for a lot of the day. Even 2-3 seconds spent looking at a new email alert has an additional cost of 5-6 more seconds as my mind darts to another couple of related thoughts before I refocus on my active task. 8 seconds per email for 150 emails is nearly 20 minutes daily. Instead, I let it pile up for an hour or two, then I process email and take-no-prisoners in dealing with the new pile-up in my inbox.

Final thoughts (for now)

I was in an extreme situation with how much email I was getting, as well as the supposed importance of those emails. There were certainly other factors that added to the stress, but my email dilemma weighed heavily on my daily life both at work and outside of work. Embracing the inbox zero mindset was a total gamechanger once I learned to reduce the flow of email, set expectations, and focus how I deal with email.

Are you drowning in email? Have you tried something like this before (and what worked for you)? Is something getting in your way? Share your experience in the comments.

Matthew C. Anderson
 

I'm an enthusiastic speaker, creator, and problem-solver.

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