The Myth Of Inbox Zero: Essential Tips And Tricks For Smarter Email Management

How is your inbox? Is it full of unread messages waiting for your attention? If so, you are not alone. Email is both a blessing and a curse – it keeps us in touch with a myriad of things, but it just keeps on coming and it can be a nightmare staying in control.

Man holding smartphone with one new message on a screen from Shutterstock

You may have heard of ‘inbox zero’. It describes that state of having an empty – or nearly empty – inbox.

Now, I have to be honest. I’ve hardly ever got an empty inbox, but I can get down to around 10 emails, each of which I have left in the inbox for a specific reason. I don’t always get to that point, but when I do I can feel much more in control of both work and personal stuff.

Does that sound appealing? If so there are several techniques you can use to get to – or get close to – zero inbox and then stay there. Somewhere in the midst of all the techniques is a mix that will work well for you. Finding that is, in many ways, much more important than trying to reach an empty inbox every single day.

Do email as a scheduled task

Do email at specific times of the day rather than responding to email when your inbox pings. Depending on how much email you get, you might set, for example, 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes in the afternoon and another 15 minutes in the evening. You may need different regimes for work and personal email. The important thing is to set your personal schedule and then stick to it. That way you can’t fritter away hours at a time on email, or waste time generating unnecessary emails (see ‘email wisely’ below).


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Set aside bits of the day to ‘triage’ email. During that period your primary aim is to quickly scan email, get rid of what you don’t need, and organise what you do need. It is not to respond to or create new emails. Quickly getting rid of the dross will reveal how much email you actually have to action, and in turn that will help you work out how long you need for it.

Do the quick stuff right away

That noted, while you are in triage mode, you will come across emails that need action. If you think the action will take just a minute or two, then it make sense to deal with it right away. If you think it will take longer, then leave the email where it is and deal with it during one of your scheduled email periods.

Email wisely

Do you get into endless rounds of pointless email discussions? Email often creates more email, with to and fro chat that has no real point. How do you get past that? Quite simply, if you generate fewer messages, you will get fewer responses. Try to ensure emails are short and to the point. Write short sentences. Don’t waffle. Be clear about what you want from the person you are emailing. You can get this kind of thing down to a fine art – and it can save a lot of time.

Archive and delete

reate an archive folder and dump email you want to keep into that. Delete the rest. Your attitude to how much you keep and how much you delete will be personal – but the goal should be to get it out of your inbox.

Be ruthless

You don’t have to respond to every mail you receive from colleagues, friends or family. Nor do you have to write long, rambling responses to every message.

How to approach a massive inbox

Female chef in the office with too much work from Shutterstock

All this is fine once you’ve got a grip on your inbox – but if there are hundreds of messages staring you in the face, starting the task is likely quite daunting. Here’s how to make the first triage as painless as possible.

Set aside a couple of hours, put your favourite music on, get a cup of tea, and relax.

First, sort your email by sender – there may be senders whose email you can delete in bulk. Some will be people. Some will be email lists you thought were a good idea at the time. The unsubscribe button could be your new best friend.

Second, sort your email by topic. If you’ve got lots of ‘Re:’ or follow up mails on a topic that you’ve been copied in to, chances are you might only need to look at the most recent couple to get up to speed. Archiving and auctioning are made easier.

Third, sort your email by date. Work from the most recent backwards to the oldest. Chances are the older ones will be less likely to need actioning. If people were desperate to reach you, they may have found another way, and other emails will just no longer be relevant.

So, there you have it. A range of ideas to make you the boss of your email – rather than letting your email be the boss of you. Go to it!

This article originally appeared on Lifehacker UK

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