Email is a problem that we all have to deal with, but why is it so bad? According to one study cited in the Huffington Post, the average US worker spends 6.3 hours per DAY dealing with email. As a result, email takes up way too much of our time and distracts from other, more important work. In this post, we’re going to explain the fundamental problems with email, share the thought processes behind the concept of Inbox Zero, and offer some suggestions and best practices for making it work for you. Our goal is to help you be more efficient and productive, and ultimately that starts with managing your inboxes, because that’s where all the things that you’re responsible for originate.
One of the biggest hindrances to being productive is not having a clear mind. David Allen, the author of the Getting Things Done (or GTD) methodology advocates the idea of “mind like water,” which he describes as being able to respond appropriately to external stimuli. He has a saying that “your brain is for having ideas, not holding them.” If you’re not managing your inboxes correctly, you’re asking your brain to retain information and function in a way that it was never intended to.
When you do this, you can easily end up over-reacting or under-reacting because you’re not seeing things right. If you’re not managing your inbox correctly (email or otherwise), you waste valuable energy trying to desperately hold on to what you should be doing in your head instead of being able to focus on the one thing that really matters. Most people who care about their productivity are aware of this, which is what makes the concept of Inbox Zero so intriguing.
Fundamental Problems with Email
Before you can start implementing Inbox Zero, you have to understand the scope of the problem you’re trying to fix. In other words, you need to understand the email monster before you try to tame it. There are six fundamental problems with email from a productivity perspective:
- Email is a one-way communication method – this means that if you’re not careful you will get stuck with other people’s demands for your time. You need to be protective of your time and do things that will consistently move you towards accomplishing your goals by being careful what you commit to. The way to do this is to limit the amount of time you spend in email and learn a new way to deal with it.
- Email naturally creates more email – this is especially true if you use the CC feature just to “keep people in the loop.” When you get an email that you’re cc’d on, the natural inclination is to reply and say, “OK, I got it,” but you need to fight this urge with everything in you. In his book Deep Work, author Cal Newport talks about a study conducted at a company, where researchers discovered that the cost of any message sent OR received is almost $.95. That’s almost $1 every time someone says, “I got it.” That’s a horrible waste of personal or company resources, and it breaks your focus from doing deep work that is actually beneficial.
- Email creates an urge to respond immediately – because it theoretically doesn’t take much time or effort, many people expect an instant response when they send an email. If you have a boss that expects this from you, they might even agree with you on a philosophical level that email is a waste of time and agree to give you freedom to ignore email — as long as you respond to theirs immediately (which really doesn’t help the situation at all). However, most people don’t get paid to monitor email, which leads us to problem #4…
- Email is (usually) a very small percentage of work responsibility and consumes a disproportionate amount of our time and energy – if you were to ask yourself, “What is the thing I do that provides the most value to my organization?” it’s probably not email. But how time do you actually get to spend doing that? Remember, if you’re the average US worker, you’re spending 6.3 hours dealing with email. If you actually saw the time reports side-by-side, you probably wouldn’t like it very much.
- Email is terrible for task management – a common mistake we see people make is trying to use their inbox as a task manager. It’s really not designed for that. While there are some apps and hacks available that make it better, it’s still not ideal or efficient, because you can’t easily associate due dates or contexts from within your email client.
- Email is terribly inefficient – if you use email to ask a question of a coworker, it might be days or weeks before you get an answer. And what do you do in the meantime? If you’re like most people, you probably end up watching your email inbox or incessantly checking it every time you hear that ding, because it might be the thing you’re waiting for.
Left unchecked, all of this means that email has the potential to rule your life if you let it. Fortunately, there is a way to reclaim your inbox (and your sanity). It’s called Inbox Zero.
What is Inbox Zero?
While many people are aware of the term Inbox Zero, most of them don’t really understand the philosophy behind Inbox Zero. I’ve actually heard Merlin Mann, the inventor of Inbox Zero, talk on some recent podcasts about how he doesn’t even like the term anymore, because people misinterpret it all the time and don’t understand what it really means. If you’ve never seen the original Google TechTalk by Merlin Mann where he introduces Inbox Zero, I highly recommend you take a look.
In the video, Merlin Mann explains that Inbox Zero is much more than just getting your email inbox unread count down to 0 — we need a way to process inputs efficiently. It’s about tying up all the loose ends that can cause you to stress out because you’re worried about what you might be forgetting to do. It’s about putting a trusted system in place so that you can deal with everything you need to do appropriately.
An “empty” inbox does not Inbox Zero make.
Inbox Zero is not waiting until you can’t take it anymore because the red unread badge is getting up into the 1,000s, and then just nuking everything in your inbox. There may have been some important pieces of information in there, but because you got overwhelmed and couldn’t deal with it you’ll never know — until it comes back to bite you later. Hitting the reset button like this really doesn’t solve anything because it’s the process that’s broken. What you really need is a system. If you have a system to deal with all the different inputs in your life, you’ll be less stressed and you’ll get much more done.
Getting Things Done + Inbox Zero = Productivity Bliss
What Inbox Zero is not:
- An empty inbox – just because you currently have zero messages in your inbox doesn’t mean you have the ability to maintain it. This just in: you will get more email. If you don’t have a sustainable system in place to help you stay here, the fact that your inbox is empty probably doesn’t give you any peace of mind.
- Mass deletion – It’s easy to get to an empty inbox by just deleting everything, but we wouldn’t recommend this. There’s probably some important information in there. What would be much better is having a system to deal with input, so you can make quick decisions about what container things go into. Most of your email will go one of 3 places: 1) Trash (a lot of it is garbage and belongs here), 2) Reference (some of it needs to be stored for later and should go here), or 3) Task Management (some of it you need to do something about and should go here).
- Just moving things around – I’ve met a lot of people with an insane hierarchical folder structure to store all their old email, and as soon as they get something new in they just throw it in a folder labeled “Client X.” But if there’s a to-do associated with that email, you now have to navigate to that folder and stumble on that message to find out what you’re supposed to do. Hopefully you can see the problem with this pretty clearly: there’s no way you’ll ever be able to keep track of what you need to do this way. Instead, put things that are “actionable” directly into your task management system. We recommend OmniFocus, and there are several ways to get emails into OmniFocus as tasks that even include a link back to the original message.
- Constant inbox monitoring – You can keep a zero-based inbox pretty easily if you watch it all day and immediately do something with every email that comes in, but that’s not Inbox Zero either. If you do that, you won’t get anything else done! Inbox Zero is a process, and when your process is tight you don’t have to babysit it. We recommend you only check your inbox a couple times a day, but when you do, process it all the way (clear to neutral). Practice the principle of “touching it once” — don’t just check it to see if there’s something urgent and leave everything else until later. That’s how you create a backlog of messages that leads to Mass Deletion, and it’s very inefficient because you end up reading the same message multiple times before deciding what to do with it.
So what is Inbox Zero?
Inbox Zero is a state of mind. It’s being able to trust that the system you’ve decided to use to process email is working efficiently and everything is filed in the appropriate place. It’s having an efficient process for dealing with all the inputs in your life. It’s gathering all the information you want to keep and all the things you have to do in a way that won’t drive you crazy, and having systems in place to put things away where they belong.
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert
When everything is where it belongs, you can focus on what you’re supposed to be doing and take action on the things that are truly important.
Know Thy Inbox(es)
Before you can process all the inboxes in your life, you first need to identify all the inboxes in your life (which extends the idea of Inbox Zero beyond email). I’m always amazed at how many people (myself included) can so easily default to “emergency scan modality,” just looking to put out the next fire, without actually considering the cause of the fire.
Many times these fires are caused by unprocessed information that was actually in an inbox of some kind that we just ignored until it blew up. Email is not the only inbox in your life, and you need to identify all the sources of input and tasks in your life so you can deal with all the inputs appropriately. Not checking your inboxes is not a good solution. Trust me, ignorance is not bliss.
Here are a few examples of inboxes that need to be processed regularly:
- Snail Mail – a lot of bills still come in the mail. Obviously, you need to take care of these.
- Task Manager – a lot of apps like OmniFocus have an awesome quick capture ability that stores tasks in an Inbox, but you need to process this regularly and identify what needs to be done and when.
- Scratch Pad – this could be physical (like sticky notes on your fridge) or digital, like Drafts or nvALT. A lot of times you’ll write something down and it might not be a task, but it still needs to go into an inbox and be processed. We did a whole series of posts on using these digital tools to quick capture on Mac and iOS and gave a few tips on how to process them efficiently.
- Physical Inbox – if you work in an office, I guarantee you have this. No matter how hard you try to keep everything digital, there will be times when your boss or coworker gives you a piece of paper and asks you to do something with it. You need a physical inbox to capture this kind of stuff and process it later.
How to Process Your Inbox
There are a couple best practices when dealing with your inboxes (both physical and digital). Here are a couple quick tips to help you process your inboxes more efficiently:
Don’t look at the numbers. If you focus on the red unread badge, you’ll quickly psych yourself out. Just start, and see how far you get. The initial momentum you get might be enough for you to finish the task completely.
Decide on an approach. We advocate a couple of strategies for dealing with email that are easily applied to your other inboxes as well. The two approaches we recommend are:
- Everyday approach – set aside a certain amount of time every day to clear your inboxes. Not every inbox needs this, but for most people 30–60 minutes is sufficient to fully process your email inbox.
- Once a week approach – set aside one day a week to process your inboxes. This may seem like blasphemy in today’s always-on society, but this could really help you get more productive and unstuck.
Schedule it. Whichever approach you decide to use, put your inbox processing time on your calendar. Treat it like an appointment you can’t miss, and don’t touch it until then!
Turn off notifications. You don’t need a ding every time you get a piece of spam. There’s actually been scientific research showing that people can get addicted to their phone’s notification dings, which release a dopamine hit (the pleasure chemical) to the brain.
When looking at things in your inbox, there are three important questions you have to ask:
- What is it? This will determine what you do with it. Is it something you’ll need later? Then it should go into Evernote (or whatever you use for reference materials). Maybe it’s not important anymore and can just be thrown in the trash. Is it a task? Then it should go into OmniFocus. If it is a task, you have to dig a little deeper and decide if it’s big enough to be its own project, if it’s part of an already existing project, or if it’s a simple task that can be added to an single-item list.
- Does it require a due date? This pretty much applies only to tasks, but just throwing tasks into OmniFocus won’t help you actually get things done. You have to decide when you want to do this task, and then you have to decide if there really is a hard “Due Date.” We recommend not putting arbitrary due dates on your tasks because you’ll end up with a whole bunch of red items that are “overdue” when you open OmniFocus (but not really), and it can paralyze you with what is called “task overwhelm.” Instead, use defer dates or start dates. These will make the task available in a tool like OmniFocus, but they won’t scream at you if you don’t get it done by a certain time.
- What do I need available to do it? In GTD speak, this is called the “context.” It’s the tool, place, or person you need in order to actually get the thing done. For example, if you have to call someone, you would use “Phone” as a context.
Resist FOMO. Responding to email notifications instantly is almost as bad as constant inbox monitoring. Usually people do this because they’re afraid that it might be something important (but it usually isn’t). People are scared of what could be happening while they’re not looking, and we call this the Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO). This works the same way for social media on a sometimes much larger scale, but it definitely applies to email as well. You need to be OK with not knowing what’s going on in your inbox every moment of every day.
Need Some Help?
If you need some assistance managing your inboxes, we’re here to help! We’ve developed our own system for dealing with email called the “AE Email Workflow.” If you want to know how it works, we’ve put together a few resources that you can download for free as part of our “Inbox Zero Toolkit.”
The Inbox Zero Toolkit includes several valuable resources:
- AE Email Workflow Diagrams explaining how the system works
- Five-minute video on how to implement the AE Email Workflow
- List of recommended email clients (for Mac & PC)
- Recommended folder structure
More Email Tips
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