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Inbox Zero: The Email Management Strategy That Will Save Your Sanity

Posted on Monday, October 17, 2016

Inbox Zero. It sounds like a distant dream— the state of having a completely empty inbox is certainly not something that you could ever attain. 

In truth, the concept of Inbox Zero, as introduced by productivity expert Merlin Mann, doesn't necessarily refer to the number of emails in your inbox (though zero is always the goal), but to the amount of time that you spend thinking about your email throughout the course of your day.

If you're traveling for business and planning to be away for a month or more, your email might feel like your lifeline back to your home office. But is it good for your productivity to be constantly checking your email? Or, if you're not able to access your email, how do you deal with it once you're in front of your computer? Inbox Zero will not only help you keep your email organized, it just might save your sanity. 

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The Four Folders

Mann decreed that you only need four folders to optimally organize your email. (Yes, you read that right—four. Take a deep breath, and keep reading.) These folders are: 

  • Action Required — These are emails that require you to follow up with someone or complete a task. This is where you put everything that will take you more than two minutes to accomplish.
     
  • Delegated — Anything that's been delegated to someone else should be cc'd to you, and then stored here. That way, if you need to refer to it again, you've got it where you can find it with ease. 

  • Awaiting Response — This is the spot for anything you're waiting to get an important response to.  If you need to send a reminder, you can just re-send the initial email with a friendly query.

  • Archived — Any email that you don't want cluttering your inbox, but you're not quite ready to eliminate it altogether, can go here. 

 If any email doesn't fit into one of these categories, you can just delete it. 

The Email Golden Rules

How do you determine what email goes into which folder? Fortunately, Mann has got you covered. Consult the five rules for email organizing, and you'll be able to sort your email without agonizing over it for hours. 

  1. Delete — When you open an email, ask yourself this question: "Will I every really do anything with this?" If the answer is no, delete or archive it. Don't beat yourself up for being realistic about what you can accomplish, and don't allow an unnecessary email to take up space in your brain that could be better used for something else. (Besides, modern email systems can house a pretty significant email archive— you can do a simple search to retrieve anything you decide you need later.)

  2. Delegate — Is it more efficient for someone else to handle this issue? If the answer is yes, forward it to that person. You can cc yourself and put the email in the delegated folder, and delete/archive the original. 

  3. Respond — Do you think you can respond to the contents of this email within two minutes or less? If the answer is yes, then do it, and then delete/archive the email. 

  4. Defer — If you open the email and decide that you're not going to be able to handle it in less than two minutes, just place it in the action required folder or put it on a to-do list and delete/archive it. 

  5. Do — If the email contains a task, can it be accomplished within two minutes? Responding to an RSVP, or completing a very short survey can be done within a couple of minutes, and then you can just delete/archive the email. 

Tips and Tricks for Inbox Zero

You're convinced— you're ready to embrace the Inbox Zero lifestyle, but you're not sure how to begin. How do you make the transition from inbox chaos to the zen of Inbox Zero? Here are some tips for achieving the inner tranquility that comes along with knowing that your email is a well-organized dream. 

  • Create your folders — Refer to the folders we listed above, and create them for your own email account. 

  • Organize your folders — This might be a bit time consuming, but it will be worth it in the long run. Determine where each email in your current folders should reside within the construct of the four folders, and put them where they belong. 

  • Delete your old folders — Take a deep breath, and delete all of your empty old folders. Take a moment to mourn them, and then move on. 

  • Carve out email processing time — Look at your schedule, and set aside different points throughout the day to sift through your accumulated emails. Some people are truly committed to the idea of Inbox Zero, and only check their mail once or twice a day, but if you need to check it more often than that, no judgment here. 

  • Turn off your email notifications — The whole point of Inbox Zero is not allowing your email to overtake your brain as you're trying to accomplish other, more creative tasks. If you're still getting pinged every time a new email arrives in your inbox, this kind of defeats the purpose. The best thing to do is to turn off the notifications on your mobile device as well as your desktop, so you only receive email on your terms. 

 If the idea of achieving a well-organized email inbox appeals to you, consider applying the principles of Inbox Zero to your workflow. As a business traveler, the last thing you want is to have your business disrupted by constant email interruption. 

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