Be More Effective – Week 22: Inbox ZERO, Regain Control of Your Inbox


Almost everyone I talk to is struggling with email overload. Interesting enough that is regardless of whether they receive 10 emails a day or 100. In my different roles, I have typically received about 100 emails a day, not counting discussion groups, newsletters, advertising or spam (which all get filtered out automatically before they reach my inbox).

I always make it a point to have my inbox down to 1-2 screens at the end of the day and to Zero on Friday by the time I leave the office.

‘Inbox zero’ is my golden rule for the weekend. And while it sounds like a tough challenge, it’s actually very achievable. Decades of working at Microsoft and Amazon, with email as the primary tool of communication, have taught me how to do this.

Bad news first

As you follow the tech news, every couple of months you will hear about a groundbreaking new tool / technology that will finally “kill email” and make communications so “much more effective”.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not going to happen. The amount of information that is shared is the problem, not the tool. When you jump on a new tool, you will find some relief for a while because no one else is there yet. Of course you get less spam and more focused communications, if only you and your best buddy are on that new cool thing. Once the tool has enough audience to be actually usable, the volume of conversations will feel unmanageable again. A couple examples throughout IT history are email, SMS, IM, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Yammer, Slack,…

The only things that truly work are your process and discipline.

Keep it simple (but keep to it)!

The good news is that this information problem can be solved. All it requires is a plan and a little discipline.

Keep it simple and stick to it.
Finish easy stuff right away, mark things that take more time and block that time on your calendar.
Delete everything that isn’t immediate relevant. Move it to one archive folder if you have separation anxiety.
Don’t sort messages you want to keep into many folders – search is your friend.

For me simplicity is key. If a process is not simple, I will likely not stick to it over a longer period of time. That’s why I stopped using categories and lots of folders for to-dos and elaborate filing. In most times, it would not be clear where something belongs and I would have trouble finding it again later.

All I need is my inbox (contains everything I still have to take care of), a follow-up flag (marks things that need a little more time) and a single archive folder (to get rid of anything that is done or not relevant right now).

You don’t need more than one folder to keep things that are already done. Search is awesome. Trust it! (Or get a better email system if your search doesn’t work.)

Rule 1: When you touch it, triage it

When you touch an email, triage it (or even better resolve it). Don’t ever go to the same email twice to decide what to do with it. Make that decision right there on the spot.

Every email that you receive typically falls into one of 4 categories:

  • 20% – Can be answered or delegated in less than a minute.
  • 10% – Needs more time to follow-up.
  • 40% – You shouldn’t have received this in the first place.
  • 30% – Is informational but you might just as well live a happy life without that information.

Rule 2: Delete everything that you don’t really care about

This includes old newsletters that you signed up for in a previous life, the org updates that don’t even remotely relate to what you’re doing, the email that you got CCed on without anyone knowing why, or even the follow-up that someone else in your team is taking care of (delegation is king!).

Get those out of your inbox right away!

Tip: If you are anxious about deleting emails that you might want to get back to later, just move them to your (single) archive folder. I am one of those anxious folks and I use that workaround. I still wait for the day when I get back to any of those emails. But hey, storage is cheap and unlimited email is the norm these days (I have a free 50GB mailbox and, as much as I try, can’t get it fuller than 15%).

Rule 3: Answer quick things while you look at them

There is no value in not answering an easy email right away. You have just spent some time reading it. Do you want to spend that time again?

If it’s less than a minute, answer right away. And then move that email out of your inbox into your archive folder (or delete it – depending on how adventurous you feel).

Rule 4: Block time for responses that need a deeper follow-up

Some emails require more thinking, a longer write-up, some research, or just some emotional distance because you are so enraged.

Flag them for follow-up and stop reading (you will have forgotten the details by the time you actually follow-up). Move on to the next unread email that needs to get triaged.

Remember to block time on your calendar for when you will go through all flagged emails (and only those!) and get them done.

Rule 5: If you think you will read it within the week, then keep it (for now)

The last category is the most controversial.

There are some emails that seem to be interesting enough to read in a spare moment but just not important enough or too long to read right now. (I’m guilty of sending my wife a lot of these – my official apologies for that.)

Sometimes those spare moments will come and you will discover interesting new things. Oftentimes you won’t find a spare moment and those emails will pile up (the ones that don’t have a flag and are marked as read but still linger around in your inbox).

Here’s my bonus rule: If I didn’t have time to read them by Friday then they have to go forever. It’s a liberating feeling to bulk-move all of them into your archive folder Friday evening.

Don’t put those emails in a special folder, you will never get back to it anyway.

Approaching bliss

After this triage exercise your inbox will have shrunk dramatically. You have answered everything that was quick or urgent. You will have marked things that need more time and will know exactly what needs and what doesn’t need attention.

Everything is read and the only unread stuff are new emails that are coming in and will be triaged in your next triage session (not now!).

I try to never let that remaining list grow more than 1 or max 2 screens long. If it gets longer, delete some of the FYI emails and/or block more time for follow-ups.

For Fridays your goal should be to have zero emails in your inbox. Then just turn off your emails over the weekend and spend quality time with your family instead. Create a rule to have them moved to a separate folder so that they don’t show up in your phone’s inbox.

This will feel really good! Stick to it for a while and get motivated by the sense of control that you will gain.

Please make a deliberate difference between ‘triage’ and ‘follow-up’ mode. I make it a point to triage all of my emails first thing in the morning. So when I start my day of meetings, I have already minimized the number of surprises waiting for me. And I can feel confident not checking email throughout the day, unless I have spare time for it.

Some weeks are harder

Some weeks are harder. There are more emails coming in. You have more other things going on. You just aren’t that effective.

I simply adjust my system for that, by significantly raising the bar for emails that I keep in my inbox for ‘later reading’. If you send me something as FYI during a extra-busy week – tough luck for you (and my heartfelt apologies).

Even in crazy weeks, I hold true to my rules of (1) no more than 2 screens of emails in my inbox and (2) inbox zero on Friday afternoon.

It’s worth it

Inbox zero is a blessing! Treat yourself to it.

Get rid of the guilt, the lingering thoughts about your email, the anxiety that you might have missed something (or even worse the revelation that you actually did miss something important).

I have an empty inbox every Friday evening and it makes for an awesome start into the weekend!

Addendum: How intentional use of technology can support this system

Here’s a little tip how technology can help you stay focused on triaging versus answering. And it also helps with not re-reading the same email again and again

Triaging: use your mobile phone

Mobile phones are great for this. Use spare minutes to triage new emails on your phone. Make a triage decision after the first paragraph (reading on a small screen is a pain anyway) or provide a short (!) answer if possible.

Hold yourself back from reading long emails that you won’t answer on the spot. You can even set your email client to only show ‘unread’ emails so you won’t be tempted to re-read emails that you had already touched.

Answering: use your desktop/laptop

Respond to more complex emails when you have time at your desk (with a nice keyboard).

Don’t triage, focus only on those emails that you have marked for follow-up. Get the list down towards zero as much as possible during that time.

Intentional separation

Separating triage time from answering time will make you more effective with both. And since my proposed systems is technology-wise super simple (all it needs is the ability to flag), it will work and transfer across any email system and client.

Chose the best technology for the task to force you into the right habits!

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