Getting to Inbox Zero

Getting to Inbox Zero: 5 tips to keep email from controlling your life

Getting to Inbox Zero can be as hard as finding the Holy Grail.  You know that feeling when you finally pare down your inbox and empty it completely? The moment where the clouds part and angels sing from above?  Until five minutes later, when another email enters the box?

We hate email because it does not stop.  Opening, reading, and responding to emails are repetitive actions with little reward.   Short of destroying your email account and moving to the woods, nothing will make it stop.   This can cause frustration, especially when your inbox is overloaded.   The more unread messages, the more stress.

Here are five tips to help you manage your inbox, and, as a result, the stress that emails can cause.

  1. Organize

To get to Inbox Zero, you need to treat your inbox like a file cabinet.  Make folders or labels to file away emails when you’re done with them, unless they are junk or spam; in that case, delete them.  File or delete.  Even if they’ve been read, do not let them sit in your inbox.  If you keep read emails in your inbox, you run the risk burying other, important emails beneath them and you will suffer from “cluttered desk” syndrome of just seeing piles and piles of annoying emails.

  1. Use filters

Next, if you get frequent emails, such as your utility company telling you you’ve made your payment, you can filter them. You may want to keep the email as a receipt, but you really don’t need to read it.  Opening it and filing it may take only a few seconds, but those few seconds would be better spent on something else.

Many email programs have filtering options. For example, Gmail lets you create a filter by using the search box at the top of your email box or, while in an email, selecting “Filter messages like these.” The filter function is helpful because it can let you “skip the Inbox” or instantly file your email in a particular folder.

  1. Curtail interruptions

Thirdly, if you haven’t already done it, turn off email “pop up” alerts.  Viewing pop up messages will disrupt your focus from the task at hand.  If you’re deep in the zone, with creative juices flowing and colorful synonyms running through your fingertips, you will be distracted to see a pop-up email telling you the new Walking Dead season is out on Netflix.  The time taken to regain your focus will be forever lost.

  1. Manage your email time

Fourthly, stop checking your email every 10 minutes. In one study, researchers at the University of British Columbia told half subjects to check their email only 3 times a day, and the others to check as often as they could throughout the day. They measured the stress levels of the subjects, and, as you might guess, the people who checked their email frequently had much higher stress levels.

The simple solution is to block off 2 or 3 times a day – no more — to read and respond to email. Then, resist the temptation to deviate from the schedule.

  1. Take immediate action, then file or delete

Finally attain Inbox Zero, you need to need to act fast: File away or delete your emails quickly!  Sure, that’s easy when it comes to promotional emails telling you the latest sale at Best Buy.  But what about an 800-word email that seems meander around in circles or lack a distinct call to action?  What about a thoughtful email that you know will require a lengthy response? It is very tempting to say, I don’t have time for this, then close those emails and say you will look at them when you have time.

However, you can tackle those emails quickly.  Here are a couple of ways:

First, send a short reply and invite the sender to schedule a telephone call to discuss the matter.  Many times, a phone call is quicker than email.  Phone calls are also more personable, better at strengthening your relationship, and will help avoid a chain of back-and-forth emails that can last for days or weeks.  Don’t want to take the time to schedule telephone calls?  There’s an app for that.  Check out Calendly, an awesome online application that lets contacts schedule a call on your calendar, and it’s free.

Second, when you know a lengthy response will be necessary, send a short reply to say you received the email but that, because it will require a lengthy reply, you will have to respond at a later date or time.  Then block time on your calendar and a deadline for yourself to tackle that reply – and stick to schedule.

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Now, obtaining Inbox Zero is not easy. It requires patience, diligence, and most of all – discipline. But the key to developing good email management habits is just that – developing a habit.   Once you take the time to organize your email box, apply some helpful filters, remove pop-ups, organize your time in responding to emails, and train yourself to respond fast and file or delete, Inbox Zero is something you too can achieve.