How much time a day do you spend on email? Probably more than you want to, or even realize. In fact last year Adobe Systems conducted a poll of 400 U.S.-based white collar workers and found the average respondent reported spending a whopping 30 hours a week on email!
This presents a real problem. More often than not, the time spent in our inboxes is a distraction from the deep, meaningful work that could actually move the needle in our careers or businesses. So the situation begs a question; how can we manage our email instead of letting our email manage us? The answer I found can be summed up in two simple words: Inbox Zero. As the name implies, this is a practice aimed at completely emptying my inbox as often as possible. And the focus and discipline that this practice breeds has made me vastly more efficient at dealing with email.
Here are five tips that have helped me along the road to conquering email’s domination of my workday…
1) Start Now. The first challenge to arriving at Inbox Zero I encountered was dealing with the thousands of emails that had built up over the years. With a bit of research I found this article outlining a simple way to archive everything over 30 days old (this is for Gmail users, but surely similar functionality exists in other email servers). After this was completed, the remaining messages were either replied to, deleted, archived, or put in folders, one at a time. This process was tedious the first time, but in a couple of hours it was over. And the mental clarity that came with looking at a completely empty inbox was worth every minute of it.
2) Think Creatively About Folders. Creative use of folders is a great way to keep your inbox clean. For example, I keep one called “Action Required.” When I’m cleaning out my inbox and come across a message that will require more than a couple minutes to process, it goes right into this folder, which I review regularly. This process isolates important action-items from the noise of my inbox, and allows me to continue processing down to zero. I keep similar folders for things like newsletters (“Read Later”) and important threads on which I’m awaiting a reply (“Waiting For.”)
3) Batch Process. To the extent possible I try not to devote bits and pieces of time throughout the day replying to emails. Instead I set aside blocks of time dedicated to processing my inbox. This can be tough, especially at first, and I’ll freely admit to doing regular visual scans of my inbox to spot urgent messages. Based on the sender or subject line, it’s pretty easy to identify emails that warrant an instant reply. Everything else is forced to wait. I’ve found that the slight delay (almost always less than 24 hours) in my response times has never raised a single question, and is more than offset by the fact that I respond to 100 percent of the messages that warrant my reply, no matter how busy I am.
4) Learn Keyboard Shortcuts (aka Hotkeys). Are you a Gmail user? Try this. Open your email in a web browser then simply type a “?” (shift + /). What you’ll be greeted with are dozens of keyboard shortcuts, or hotkeys. Using these shortcuts shaves precious time off of every email session. I started by memorizing only a couple related to common functions like reply (“R”) and archive (“E”). Muscle memory kicked in quickly, allowing me to expand my arsenal. Before I knew it I was blazing through entire inbox clean-out sessions without ever touching the mouse. The few minutes this saves on every email session may not seem like much, but over the course of workweek it really adds up.
5) Unsubscribe Ruthlessly. Striving for Inbox Zero led me to think much more critically about the kind of messages I was receiving. It quickly became obvious that a substantial number of the emails I was having to process were the result of years of subscribing to (or being unwittingly signed up for) various email lists. I now unsubscribe ruthlessly from these lists. I choose to do this individually, as they come to my attention. But there are also services like Unroll.me, aimed at making the process quick and simple.
At first it felt count-intuitive. Getting to Inbox Zero seemed to me like it would take a great deal of time and effort. So how could this practice help free me from the constant dictates of my inbox? But what I came to realize was that my inbox was nothing more than a representation of all the things vying for my attention. And these things could either be dealt with reactively or proactively. By regularly practicing Inbox Zero not only did I have become far more efficient at processing emails, but I’ve learned to cut through the noise and take back the initiative of my workday.
I’d love to hear how you deal with the necessary evil of your inbox in the comments. Or shoot me an email, I promise I’ll get to it 😉