5 Steps to Making Your Inbox Work for You

It’s Monday morning. It’s not even 9, but you have a gallon of coffee to hand. You’re staring at your screen as your work email account springs to life. A bulging inbox appears, full to the brim of ‘urgent’ emails that couldn’t possibly wait for that much-anticipated caffeine buzz to kick in.

What do you do? Start from the bottom and work up? Get fancy and order them by date and urgency? Look out for the ones from the boss and ignore the rest? There is another way. An efficiency seeking trend called Inbox Zero.

What is Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is a method of organising and managing emails, attempting to keep the number of messages in your inbox as close to zero as possible. The phrase was coined by productivity wizard Merlin Mann, whose website 43folders is dedicated to helping creative folks find the time to do what they do best - create! Accompanied by a popular hashtag that’s had 1.4K mentions in the last 30 days, it’s clear that Mann has tapped into something that concerns a lot of people.

Why all the email?

Last year, Radicati’s email statistics report estimated the number of email accounts worldwide to reach over 4.35 billion in 2015.  This equates to 1 in every 5 people having email access. The same report predicts that average business email accounts send 38 emails per day and receives a staggering 88. With this data in mind, there is no wonder that people are struggling under a mountain of unread, un-actioned and un-deleted messages. Constantly managing an inbox like this is time spent organising and conversing, rather than the doing we would all rather be getting on with.

So, how do I start practising Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is about reducing reliance on emails. Instead of waiting for emails to arrive, Mann suggests that checking emails sporadically is actually much more productive. He even goes so far as to recommend checking email as frequently as you would use the bathroom!

The way I’ve been thinking about it is to treat email the exact same way you would treat snail mail dropping through your letterbox. That means categorising these letters as they arrive, into letters that need attention (bills, appointments etc.) and those that don’t (takeaway leaflets, direct mail etc.). I don’t end up with 40 letters piled up on the doormat so why do I have 40 emails sat in my inbox?

Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer and Do!

The Inbox Zero method has five actions to help you whittle down your inbox:

Delete

This can be applied to any emails or messages that are received that either need no action from you or do not hold any information that you might need at a later date. Instead of letting them languish in your inbox, hit the delete button and never be bothered by them again. If you think you might need to reference this email in the future - archive it - then it will still be searchable and useful at a later date.

Delegate

If you receive an email and you need help from someone else to complete the task, this email can be forwarded on to the intended person, and then marked as ‘waiting’ (or something similar) in your inbox. This way, the email isn't clogging up your main inbox, but can be found easily, at the click of a mouse.

Respond

Can the message be replied to in under five minutes? If so, you should do it. The whole point of Inbox Zero is to stop little tasks piling up into one huge job. If you can get the little things done straight away, it mentally and physically clears the deck for the next task at hand.

Defer

Say you get an email about something that is happening in a month from now. This is a useful email to receive, but you don’t need to think about it until a few weeks from now. Pop this email in a ‘Defer’ folder. You then know that all of the emails in this folder are actionable at a later date - even setting a calendar reminder to pop up on the day you need to start working on the content of that message. This can be really beneficial if you have to plan campaigns or tasks many months in advance.  

Do

Then there is the dreaded ‘To Do’ folder. Here sit all of the messages you have to respond to and action as a matter of urgency. Emails should only be filed in here if they require immediate action.

Inbox Zero for Content Marketers?

Inbox Zero is great for those who use email as an internal communication tool, passing documents and information across a room or around a business. What about people who work as Content Marketers or in PR?

Having worked in this field for more than 3 years, I can tell you that email is one of the most useful tools available to me. What if I missed an opportunity from a publisher because I wasn't quick enough to respond to their email? With 92% of publishers preferring to be contacted by email, it’s likely that this is how I will be contacted too.

Checking email as often as I use the bathroom just isn’t going to cut it for me. I could miss important messages and exciting opportunities.

The merits of Inbox Zero are clear to see, and an awareness of this approach has changed the way I view email. It can be really effective when applied to internal business email and for filing and archiving existing email. Ultimately though, it’s important to apply your own reasoning and not just follow trends. Know if your emails are slowing you down, then do something to combat this if they are. If that ‘something’ turns out to be Inbox Zero, then I’m happy I could help.

Flickr Creative Commons Image: Beate Meier

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