Staying at Inbox 0-ish

Photo by  Krsto Jevtic  on  Unsplash

This is the second in the 3 part series about email management. If you haven’t read the first one about how to realistically achieve inbox 0 in the first place, I’d suggest you go read it here.

Anyone can get to inbox 0 once; but how are you going to maintain it?

First, let’s just get clear on the fact that even when you achieve inbox 0, you’re looking at max 10 minutes before you get another email and you’re no longer at 0, right? That’s true, and it’s OK; it’s the nature of email. It just keeps coming.

So maybe we should rename this concept “inbox 0-ish” or “inbox 5-ish” or whatever feels right and doable to you. The “ish” is important here. We’re not looking for perfection; we’re looking for good enough. We live in the real world.

First, and this may be counterintuitive, turn off all those email notifications. On your desktop and your phone. Do it now. We’re going to start treating email as the task that it is and not just this layer of work that always hangs out in the background, increasing your anxiety. Email takes time, and you need to build that time into your day to properly address it if you want to stay on top of it. And you want to process email on your own schedule, not simply because someone emailed you.

Then, pick a couple of times a day to process email and actually block it out on your calendar. (Notice that I didn’t say “check” email; I said “process” email. There’s a big difference.) I personally tend to process email once in the late morning, and once in the late afternoon.

If processing email just a couple of times a day feels daunting to you, then pick several times a day. Heck, pick every hour if you really want to. You just want to start to get yourself out of the habit of constantly checking for new email as your default. As the thing you do between every task. Or even the thing you do when you lose focus on the task you are working on. As you get more comfortable with the idea of batch processing your email, and as you start to see that not only does nothing bad happen when you don’t check every 5 minutes, but that you actually have a lot more time to focus on your work, you can start decreasing the processing frequency.

And when you do process email, you’ll want to use the following simple framework:

There are really only 3 possible actions you can take when you get an email:

  • Archive/Tag/File — If you get an email that is informational only, that doesn’t require a response, then archive it and/or tag/label/file it. While you’re at it, make sure you unsubscribe to stuff you aren’t reading anyway. Now’s the time to be real with yourself. If you don’t have time to read it now, what are the chances you’ll prioritize reading it later. (Spoiler alert: close to 0%)

  • Respond — If you have the info needed to respond and the response will be relatively quick (under 5 minutes), just do it. (And then archive/file and tag/label.)

  • Add to your task list — If the email is a project or task you need to do, or you just don’t have the info required to answer it yet, add the task to your task list and respond to let the sender know when they should expect a full reply. (And then archive/file and tag/label.) Lots of task apps have an “email to task” feature that allows you to forward the email to the task app to automatically create a task for you.

Now you know the steps to maintaining inbox 0-ish and I want you to be ruthless and focused about email going forward. When you process your email, process it down to as close to 0 as you can get in the time you’ve allotted. Those close out your email tab and get working on your real priorities for the day!

Does this process take diligence? Absolutely.

Does this relieve a lot of anxiety you might not have even known you were feeling about that big red number in the corner of your inbox? 100%.

Can you do it? Yes, you can.

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