How to Deal with Email: Get Inbox Zero

The internet has made our lives more convenient, but, at the same time, it has also heaped new stresses on our shoulders. One of the most bemoaned stresses is the email inbox. This miracle of technology has become the “junk drawer” of our digital lives. Everything goes in, and for some, little comes back out. There are as many proposed ways to deal with the problem as there are people proposing them; maybe even more. The inbox is a very individual space, and it requires an individual approach.

There are, however, some similarities in all the methods that I’ve come across. These methods tend to begin with a basic productivity.

  • Don’t live in your inbox. Your job is not to reply to (or more often than not, delete) emails. Your job is to sell books, host events, and–time permitting–read ARCs. Tackle your inbox by scheduling time to deal with it and, once scheduled, don’t go over the allotted time. Additionally, have scheduled time to do the things that can’t be accomplished through your inbox. This allows you to triage your emails quickly and effectively.
  • Create a system of archiving that works for you. Every email program should have a way to keep an email message or thread as long as you need it. If your email client doesn’t provide this, then get a new one.
  • When you are working within your email, take action. The best way to achieve “Inbox Zero” is to take action on each message right when you open it. That action can be deleting the message, queueing tasks, scheduling work, or archiving information. If you leave your inbox full, you will develop a psychological burden which will weigh on your mind.

With those basics in play, there are a multitude of ways to use individual email clients. I’ve provided workflow examples for Outlook and Gmail (my favorite).

A Workflow for Outlook

According to our email analytics, a majority of our recipients are reading our emails in Outlook. Since Microsoft has had a firm grip on enterprise office software for a while, many of you will find useful this outline of one method for tackling the inbox described in detail at Lifehacker. If you’d rather not go into that much depth, this overview will shed some light on how you can use Outlook without any additional software, thereby maximizing your email effectiveness.

  1. Classify your email based on what you do with the information. This could be approving purchase orders, making decisions on marketing plans, following up on event proposals, or any other classification you determine.
  2. Create a category in Outlook. This is one of the most personal aspects of this process. Most likely,  you’ll want to have a category for each person that you assign tasks to, each person that will follow up on tasks assigned to you, individual projects, and recurring tasks. The purpose of these categories is to get messages out of your inbox and into a holding place until a task or follow-up is scheduled.
  3. Follow Up is a feature built into Outlook that creates a task associated with a specific email. Outlook has built in default timeframes: today, tomorrow, this week, next week, etc. This will give you an easy-to-use task list inside of Outlook from which to build your schedule.
  4. Additionally, Outlook has a feature called Quick Steps; simply, a way to automate the processes for the different email classifications determined in Step 1. Once created, Quick Steps can be used to complete multiple actions with a single click.

There are step-by-step details on how to set-up all of these tools here.

A Workflow for Gmail or Google Apps

Here at Books & Whatnot we use Google Apps, or Gmail for Business. This means that we still use Google servers and services, but we have them working in conjunction with the domain we own. The power of Gmail can be pinpointed in a few major tools. The search functionality is superior to almost everything else I have tried; but I wouldn’t expect anything less from the search giant. The beauty of Gmail is that, when the idea of Inbox is combined with its younger sibling, Archive, the user does not have to worry about classifying every single message. Gmail was the first email software to thread conversations, so instead of what appears to be a new email appearing in your inbox, Gmail lumps all individual emails of a single conversation together, making the ability to reference the history of a conversation incredibly easy.

Here are some tools to incorporate to make Gmail work for you.

  1. Turn on Keyboard Shortcuts (here’s how to do that). By using these shortcuts, you eliminate the need to move back and forth to a mouse, which doesn’t seem like it would take much time. But if you were to add together those four-second mouse grabs, it could easily add up to hours over the course of a month. Here are the shortcuts I use the most:
    • C – compose new email
    • R – reply to open email
    • F – forward the email
    • Y – archive conversation
    • # – delete conversation
    • J – move up in the list
    • K- move down in the list
    • X – select message in list (to do something with a batch of emails)
    • / – search (this moves your cursor directly to the search box, ready to type your query)
    • L – Label  messages (instead of filing individual messages in one folder, you can use many labels per message in Gmail)
  2. Next, think about the most frequent classifications of your emails, and create a label for each of those.
  3. When I receive an email that requires a new task on my to-do list, I do the following:
    1. Open & read,
    2. hit “L” then type the name of the label “To Do,”
    3. hit  “R” or “F” to send it on to someone if necessary,
    4. hit “Y” to move out of my inbox.
    5. Then when the time on my schedule comes for “To-Do List,” I open the label “To-Do” and start from the bottom, working in the order the messages were received.

Again, these steps are just the beginning of how you could tweak your workflow to make your email more productive. Try either of these for a bit to see what works for you, then determine what you would change. The goal is to make sure you’re taking action on the messages you get every day. This is an area of incremental progress. In order to be effective, you will need to turn your workflow into a habit.

Kenton Hansen

Technical Co-Founder
Kenton makes digital things. He is a technologist and has had his part in a few startups including software, advertising, and client services.
@KentonH