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Getting to a zero inbox and keeping it that way

Whether we like it or not, email is a key part of how we share information, stay in touch, follow up, coordinate work, and so on. There are people who can’t stand emails (I am talking to you, Slack fans out there), others who see it as a cornerstone of their productivity (yours truly) and then others in the middle who might even have all sorts of productivity tools running in parallel, often making things worse.

I remember a time when I was helping a founder to get things more organized. He sent me a text message asking if I had seen the slack message about a project that he was working on. I checked and yes, there was a slack group and also private messages that referenced some attachments that were in an email thread, and then a separate WhatsApp texting to take some things 'offline’. Shoot me now… :)

Let me not sugarcoat this one: if you are bringing more tools into the organization or even just into your own life, hoping that the latest and shiniest thing will be the magic bullet that solves it all, I have bad news for you. What often ends up happening is a variety of tools that not only costing you much in money but also in time, trying to sync them all. And that’s just you, without trying to bring your team into it.

But let’s get back to the basics and so emails. Why do emails become so overwhelming? At its core, I think there are three main reasons. Most people don’t know:

A) the difference between ‘processing’ vs ‘doing’ emails

B) how to differentiate between the various types of emails

C) how to pick the best time and frequency for processing emails.

A) Processing vs doing emails

This is a trick I have adopted from David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. One of the first things you will learn in GTD is the importance of processing vs doing. When I am processing emails, all I am doing is understanding what type of email I am looking at (see point B) and so what I should do about it. There is a time and place for this (see point C), but what is key is this processing activity doesn’t become a ‘doing’ activity. There is only one type of email that is an exception, but we will get to it under point C.

What I mean by ‘doing’ emails is when I am doing actual work associated with it. Someone asked me to send them a 1 pager on something I need to create? Do I need to send a longer response that I will be carefully crafting for like 20mins? Do I need to have a call with a few people before I can respond with the answer? These are tasks, and the email just acts as a trigger.

If you don’t have a reliable task management system (and I don’t mean yet another app or software, but a framework that you consistently use to prioritize your tasks and goals on a weekly and daily basis), then email often becomes the default tool, which I have never seen working too well. If you look around at 4pm and suddenly realize that the day is gone and you have no idea what you have actually accomplished, then you know what I am talking about. The day has been all reactive with little to no room to focus on what will move the needle for you.

Getting to a zero inbox requires you to process emails daily. When and how you do it varies, but this is the simplest and easiest way to keep the inbox at zero. Also, pro-tip for reducing stress levels: unable the ‘unread email’ count in your email settings. This will bring you as much zen as daily meditation, I promise.

Once you understand the difference between ‘processing’ emails vs. ‘doing’ emails, your productivity enters a whole new level, saving you hours every week.

B) Differentiate the various types of emails

This is where things get quite subjective, and there is no one right answer. The key thing is that you treat emails differently and not as all equals. How you process them, what you do with them, when you respond to them will be different. This is another key and high ROI effort when it comes to managing your inbox.

There are 5 types of email I manage:

1. Urgent: these are the ‘sh*t, drop everything and get on this’ email including whatever ‘doing’ is involved. This is the one exception I mentioned above when I need to jump into doing. Now, you need to be careful with not making everything into an emergency. As they say, if everything is important, nothing is important. If you have more than 2-3 emails like this in a day, you might need to take a closer look at your projects, priorities, comms with others, etc.

2. Respond in 24hrs: I find that people typically are good with a 24hr cycle when it comes to responding to their stuff. After that, some might start to take it personally or get frustrated or even worse, think that you ignore them. These are emails that may or may not have tasks associated with them. If they don’t have any, whenever I block time for emails (ideally the same time when I am processing emails), I respond to them. If they have a task associated with them and that is something that takes me more than 5 minutes, I schedule the task in and let the person know that I am on it (to prevent them chasing me on it).

3. Things I want to read: these are newsletters, reports, videos, summaries, status updates, etc. I just mark them so I know they are there when I have time and energy to read things (typically at the end of the day). I keep these emails starred until I have read the materials.

4. Info I need in the near future: these emails have attachments, links, etc. in them that I will need for a task I have soon coming up. These could also be a list of questions I need to answer, detailed context about a situation, readings that I need as input for the task, etc. I keep these emails starred until I have completed the task.

5. Expecting response: even though Gmail has a great feature to remind you when someone hasn’t got back to you in a week, I star emails that are important for me to get a response on asap. That way, I can look at my sent emails at the end of the day and nudge / call / ping. This is your simple, low tech solution for making sure that nothing falls through the cracks… and annoy those who like to forget about their responsibilities sometimes :)

C) Time and place for processing emails

There is no one right answer here either, as it depends on your job, the expectations you set with others, the expectations that exist in your work environment, etc. The key thing is that you try to be conscious about it and timebox email time.

I suggest taking your energy levels into account: when you have the best hours of your day, focus on the most complex and important tasks; when you have little to no energy, email processing or reading is a good thing to slot in. I typically do a quick morning scan to see if anything could be ‘drop everything urgent’, then one midday and one late afternoon processing time.

In Summary

That’s it friends. My key message is that simplicity is key, and so one of my first productivity tips is that GSuite (or Google Workspace) is really powerful, so get on it if you currently aren’t.

Setting up basics like priority inbox, folders, filters is the next step. Then, moving onto a processing system is a bit more advanced. It is also rather personal with no one right answer, but I hope I have given you some ideas by sharing an approach that is built on the GTD system.

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