Inbox Zero the Right Way

When I sat down to write this post, I fully intended to start it with a disclaimer that went something like this: ‘Full Disclaimer: My inbox is not at zero.’ Right now, I’ve got 16 read messages sitting in my inbox, and the guilt was starting to get to me. How can I speak authoritatively about something I can’t do myself? Won’t I just be an inbox-zero-hypocrite? It was in thinking about these questions that I realized my views on inbox zero itself were skewed and needed a correction. I had been thinking about this all the wrong way, inbox zero isn’t a badge that I get to wear when I have successfully deleted all my messages – it is a whole way of thinking about email that frees us from being its slaves.

Inbox Hypocrisy

Trimming my inbox with over 1,500 emails was easy. I could delete whole pages of emails without more than a cursory glance. Do I need receipts from five years ago? Gone. Do I need travel itinerary from July of 2012? Gone. The going was easy and it felt great – I was well on my way to inbox zero.
But things got harder and harder with each deleted email. Around the 200-mark I had to start making tougher decisions – but I was ruthless and pushed ahead. If I was unsure, the email got deleted. I was only keeping emails that had family pictures, important information, or some serious sentimental value. I kept working and worked it down to 100, then 50, then 20 – but got stuck at 16.
The end was in sight, but those 16 emails had important things that needed to be dealt with, or some of my favorite pictures of my children, or a meaningful message from my wife. One day soon I will go through those last 16 messages and save the pictures, archive the sappy love messages, and finally get down to the fabled inbox zero.

What is Your Goal?

When I got below 20 emails, I realized something important. I didn’t really care if I truly got to inbox zero or not. I had accomplished my goal of taking back control over my inbox – rather than my inbox controlling me. The message that are sitting in my inbox are there because I want them there, not because I don’t have the time to deal with them. And that is the true goal of inbox zero – control over your email.
So the question we have to ask ourselves, is what is our goal? If your goal is to get to zero messages in your inbox – then go for it, delete them all and wear the proud badge of true inbox-zeroer. But if your goal is control, then figure out what that means to you and go for it. For me, my goal was to only keep messages intentionally – and I have reaching that goal. And now I maintain that intentionality by looking at each email that comes across my inbox and making a decision – delete it, move it to a folder, or leave it in my inbox. The control is mine, and the control feels good.

Steps to Retaining Control

Getting to your initial goal is exciting, but the key to taking back control is through retaining good email habits. And one simple step has changed the way I do email: Ignore your Inbox – this seems counter intuitive to many as they are starting this journey, but it has revolutionized my inbox. I check my email are regular, set intervals throughout the day – and only at those set times. Obviously, every person and job requires different levels of involvement – but find what works for you and ignore your email the rest of the time. You’ll get more done and dealing with your email will be easier as you have set, blocked off time or organization and responses.
Also, create a few folders for the most commonly saved emails. For me, this means purchases, travel documents, and important files. My inbox also serves as a temporary storage so having easily searchable emails is key to staying organized – and having folders is key to keeping the clutter out of my inbox.

Do it For You

As the end of the day, what matters is what works for you. Don’t try to get to zero for the merit badge – do it for your own productivity (or sanity). Thinking about your email this way allows you be free from guilt or feeling of hypocrisy – and instead focus on creating a system that works for you and your business. Every situation is different, so identify your needs and build a solution that works for you. Your inbox will thank you later (but not literally, inboxes can’t talk).

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