The first email was sent in 1971. Seven years later, the first spam email – an advert for a computer sale – hit inboxes. But those were simpler times.
Right now, your inbox is probably a mess. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Simple AI systems have (mostly) purged our inboxes of spam, meaning that everyone should, in theory, be able to get a grip on the endless deluge of emails. Fat chance.
The biggest difficulty with email comes from human behaviour. The colleague that always hits reply all to every message; the myriad of newsletters we sign up to and don’t read; the person who sends short emails when a quick IRL conversation would suffice. In short, there’s too much email.
There are many coping mechanisms for a bulging inbox but, the most evangelised is inbox zero. The concept – having no emails in your inbox – is a simple one, but the practical realities of accomplishing it are more elusive. Until now. Read on and enter a bold new era of inbox zero bliss.
Before starting on the road to inbox zero there are a few things you should do to get organised. These will help get the number of emails down and keep them down for a long time to come.
Refresh: If you’re one of the ghastly people who has an unread email counter of several thousand messages, you need to have a clear out before even thinking of becoming an inbox zero fanatic. Archive or delete all those emails in one go. If it’s important, they’ll email again.
Create some folders: Inbox zero is all about getting things out of your inbox and moved to somewhere else. Create folders for the issues you often receive messages about. You could create one folder called ‘replied’ and another for ‘colleagues’, for example.
Start filtering: Outlook, Gmail and most other email clients worth their salt allow you to filter and rules to be created. Set these up for the people you email regularly. A flag for messages from your boss is a good place to start. You could also automatically move newsletters into a specific folder to get them out the way.
Unsubscribe: If you’ve already been neglecting your inbox, it’s probably also true that your email subscriptions are out of control. The iOS mail app on iPhones and iPads provides an unsubscribe option at the top of emails that have been received through a mailing list. Alternatively use Unroll.me helps with bulk unsubscriptions (but it has some slightly murky history with selling customer data). If you want to be safe, do it by hand.How to organise your phone to make it less stressful
Deal with things
Now your inbox is organised and hopefully at zero, you can start to manage the inbox on a daily basis. There are a few key steps and processes that can make keeping the number down easy.
Keep things moving: Taking a leaf out Merlin Mann’s Getting Things Done, inbox zero is all about keeping messages out of your inbox. The inbox isn’t a place for messages to sit. When you come across a new message, or are taking some time to go through a bunch that have built-up, it should get dealt with at that moment.
Replying: If a message takes fewer than five minutes to reply to – most can be way under this – then do it straight away. If a message requires a more thoughtful reply, or takes some research, then save it for later. For extra neatness, you could create a separate folder for emails that require further, more thoughtful, attention.
Actioning: If a message can’t be answered instantly it needs to be handled in another way. This way is up to you, but the key priority is moving out of the inbox. If the email requires another task to be completed it can be added to a to-do list. If it isn’t a message for you, forward it straight to the person that may be able to answer it.
Alternatively, Microsoft’s Outlook, and third-party email clients such as Astro, allow emails to be snoozed. This moves them out of your inbox until a time of your choosing. A logical tactic is carving out an hour of your day to answer emails then snoozing all incoming messages that can’t be replied to in five minutes.
Inbox zero isn’t just about being organised (although it is a big part of it). Changing the way you think about emails can also help to keep an unread count down.
Be brief: Most emails – especially those with people you know – don’t need to be formal. Dispense with the formulaic greeting and wishing colleagues well and send short messages instead. Thinking of email more like text messaging can help to reduce the time it takes to reply to messages.
Don’t email: Does an email need to be sent? If the person you’re writing a message to is in the same office, try speaking to them in real life. If they’re not, pick-up the phone. Dealing with simple issues can be done without email. There’s also the option of introducing internal messaging systems in offices. Ever heard of Slack?
Relax: Even the strictest inbox zero converts won’t always have an empty inbox. There are busy times where email doesn’t become a priority, but that’s fine. Inbox zero is as much about being organised and feeling less overwhelmed by emails as it is strictly sticking to the number zero. In short: inbox zero is a state of mind.
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