I thought it would be nice to discuss one of the ‘golden oldies’ of e-mail overload countering here: Inbox Zero and my modifications to Inbox Zero Redux. It’s been a while since this approach was introduced by Merlin Mann (an e-mail wizard name if I’ve ever heard one), 7 years already, but I still try to get my inbox to zero e-mails daily. And actually succeed most of the times. It might be a different story if suddenly start receiving hundreds of e-mails every day, but for now, this is working well for me.
The basic options presented for every e-mail in the Inbox Zero methodology are: delete, delegate, respond, defer and do (video here). In this day and age, with e-mail storage space availability as it is today, I’d like to replace the delete option with archive. Archiving gets e-mails out of your inbox and your mind fast, but when needed, a quick search can bring them up quickly again. To adapt Inbox Zero to my personal taste, I’ve modified Inbox Zero to Inbox Zero Redux. My personal e-mail options actually consist of:
- Archive: if no action/response is required from you, archive immediately.
- Reply: if you need to reply and it will take you less than 3 minutes, do it now. Follow this up with a nice archive obviously.
- Action: if an e-mail requires action from you, keep it in your inbox! That’s right, my inbox is a crucial part of my current to-do list. As soon as you’ve taken the action, reply if needed and archive afterwards.
- Star: reserved for special cases, where e-mails are really important to you, but require no immediate action or response.
I’m not sure if this is noticeable at all, but the first three options on this list are actually kind of like a stack. The height of the action stack required for every e-mail can only be decided by you. The highest action stack consists of an action-reply-archive sequence and will only be necessary for important e-mails. The second highest stack, reply-archive, occurs more frequently, but typically can be dealt with quick and painlessly. The lowest stack, which should be your option of preference, consists of quickly skimming over the e-mail and archiving immediately. The star action, I admit it’s debatable if this is actually necessary at all, is a way of keeping things that feel important close without having them in your inbox. Periodically I skim over my starred list and unstar the mails that are no longer relevant.
So this is the mindset I have along with this system: nothing (ok, almost nothing) gives me more pleasure than having an empty inbox. Mails in my inbox are costing me precious mental energy by drawing my attention to them every time I look at my inbox (which is more often than I should). New e-mails should be processed as quickly as possible and the only way this will happen is deciding on the lowest possible e-mail stack height and following through with it. Summarizing that again: archive whenever you can, reply immediately when a reply is necessary and if action from your side is required, keep it in your inbox until you can perform the action. I work through my inbox to-do list because my mindset gives me a reward for completing tasks (getting closer to empty inbox bliss) and punishes me for keeping things on my to-do list for too long (by having them stare at me from my inbox). Don’t believe me? Oh, here’s my inbox now:
Here’s some more general e-mail tips I condensed from Inbox Zero and my own experiences:
- Use templates or canned responses for basic e-mails like thank-you notes if you find yourself typing the same type of e-mails over and over again.
- If it’s been a while since the e-mail was sent, asking the sender if it’s still relevant can save you a lot of time.
- If an e-mail has been sitting in your inbox for a brutally long time, either answer it now or delete/archive it already.
- The rule I can never follow because I have a serious e-mail addiction problem: don’t check your e-mail continuously or have notifications when new mail arrives.
- For every e-mail ask yourself: What’s it to me? Is there anything required from my side? How can I handle this in the most elegant and quickest way possible?
Apparently there’s an Inbox Zero book scheduled to be released at some point as well. But for now I’ll stick to my own Inbox Zero-inspired e-mail ninja routine: archive-reply-action(-star).