How to get (back) to inbox zero

Recently, I heard someone mention that they were working on getting their inbox to zero. If you are new to this concept, you may be used to leaving messages in and even using the inbox as a pseudo-to-do list. This is not processing email, and I am guilty of this myself. But I immediately thought of ways to focus on getting to inbox zero.

Some of us might need more time to get a handle on our email if we have been letting it pile up. We might need to declare email bankruptcy or start over. Even so, this article on how to get to inbox zero may help.

When considering the habit or goal of inbox zero, consider how achievable it is based on the current situation.

It can be a good idea to ask when is a realistic timeframe to achieve this goal? Am I aiming for today, this week, or the end of the month? Is this practice new, something I have done before, or something I am already doing (even if not perfectly)?

If there are thousands of emails or I don’t have the flexibility to dedicate more time to the task than I currently am, then it doesn’t make sense to try to get to inbox zero today (or probably this week). That’s okay. Time spent preparing and working toward a goal can be helpful too, even if it is to get a handle on how to make the goal happen.

For both veteran GTD-ers and newbies, it is worth stepping back for a few minutes, making a plan, and reviewing some good practices.

Make time for the change on the calendar. How much and when, you ask?

If this is to make a change or get back on the inbox zero wagon, then consider putting some new time on your calendar for email processing. Maybe start with 30 minutes a day for email, or two one-hour blocks to bookend the day.

If you feel like you need an empty inbox before you can set the priorities for the day or week, process emails on Monday morning and/or every morning.

It may feel better to have a sense of a clear inbox before leaving work for the day. Schedule a time block at the end of your day to process email. I like to do both. You could even set up three dedicated times to process email. The minimum time blocks I felt were sufficient were two sessions, but when there were full days of client delivery work, sometimes that did not happen every day. I’ve heard of people doing one. I can also see checking email more than twice a day, especially if disciplined with processing.

Try out an email processing schedule, and adjust based on how it is going and how you are feeling about your productivity.

What is processing? Think of it like blocking and tackling.
Processing is sorting. Getting to inbox zero means focusing on the habit of processing, which is another way of saying figuring out what to do with this email.

Again, for those familiar with Getting Things Done (or GTD) processing — now called clarifying — this may be old hat.

How to process email:
During the calendar block, turn off notifications, close your door or browser tabs, and stay focused on the task of processing email.
If you are relatively up to date, then start with the oldest emails first.
Read the email.
Then do, decide, or delegate. To deal with the email, respond to it, archive it, or schedule time to deal with it.
Be disciplined by staying on task.

Options for what to do after reading an email:
Delete it.
Accept a calendar invite.
Write a quick response and archive the email.
Write a quick response and set aside time on the calendar for further processing or doing the work.

Do not spend all your email processing time figuring out what to do with one email or actually doing work.

To help with this, use the two-minute rule.

Take up to two minutes to review and handle one email.

If an email requires work, decisions, or more than two minutes for any reason, move on — by setting aside time or adding something to the to-do list.

If you spend the entire email time handling one email, this will work against you. Also, you may need to think about a response, design something, or review something. So, put this in another inbox or on your task list or calendar. Don’t spend the entire time doing one email…unless you decide that is more important than inbox zero.

Two-minute responses are shorter than you might think. Typing more than a sentence or two will lead to items staying in your inbox.
If you find you need a lengthy back and forth, is it possible to let the person know you will review the email, and ask could they get on a call to talk? Similarly, if you have five emails from the same person who really needs a conversation, file them into a folder and set up a call.

Here is a bonus idea for extra support. Let colleagues know that you are working on getting and staying current with your inbox. Then, when you send brief replies or don’t reply to something not requiring a response, they will know you are working toward your goal and not just ignoring them or being short. Letting others know your priorities can help achieve them and add context to interactions.