Inbox Zero is achievable!

28 November 2014

Yesterday I had a lovely Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday and I think it’s just wonderful that we take time off as a nation to celebrate gratitude. It got me thinking about how grateful I am for a habit I developed in January of 2011. For almost four years, I’ve been clearing out my email inbox, taking it to zero (or near zero) virtually every weekday.

That habit means that I stay on top of my email and never feel pressured by it. It means that I’m a good correspondent. And it means that information or requests I receive via email rarely fall through the cracks.

Back in 2012, I wrote a post with the nuts and bolts of how I maintain my Inbox Zero habit. I’m pasting it here, revised slightly for the times. But essentially nothing’s changed in the four years I’ve been practicing this habit. Inbox Zero is achievable and, for me at least, quite easy to maintain.

In May 2011, I blogged about why I love clearing out my inbox every day. You can read more detail in the post, but the bottom line is that clearing out my email inbox every day is easier than not clearing it out. Each day my inbox has only new messages in it. Nothing lingering. No time bombs. It’s fantastic.

Moreover, having an Inbox Zero habit prompts me to respond to messages that, in the past, I would have let linger in my inbox. It forces me to make decisions today, not tomorrow or next week. That not only enhances my productivity; it frees up my brain!

Here are the nuts and bolts of how I do it, since it seems to be the kind of thing that many consider difficult. In reality, I find it very easy.

Here’s an important note: When I talk about Inbox Zero, I’m not talking about deleting all my emails. I keep thousands of emails. But they’re filed away from my inbox, waiting for me to refer to them. They’re not mixed in with new emails.

I use my MacBook’s Mail program as an email client. All my emails are downloaded to my computer, which is how I like it. I see no reason, though, that these principles wouldn’t apply to cloud-based systems, like gmail.

  1. I have many email folders (or “mailboxes” in Mac parlance). The one I use the most is called *Archive. (More on that below. The * ensures that the *Archive folder is at the top of my list of folders.) I also have folders for various volunteer activities, one called Clients, another for Prospective Clients, and folders for each email list I’m on.
  2. I use rules to divert listserv emails to designated folders, so they bypass my inbox. Google groups, yahoo groups, any other group emails automatically go into their respective folders and I read them at my leisure. Same goes for messages from Twitter telling me I have new followers.
  3. For those emails that do land in my inbox, I read and respond as necessary. Ideally, I respond immediately and then move that message out of my inbox. If the incoming message doesn’t apply to a volunteer activity or isn’t from a client or prospective client, I move it into the *Archive folder. If I don’t need to keep it, I delete it. If it doesn’t require a response, but I want to keep it, I just file it. If I don’t respond immediately, I respond at the end of the day when I’m clearing out my inbox.
  4. By far, most of my emails end up in the *Archive folder. Thanks to the robust search capabilities of my Mac, I can always find an old message; I don’t have to be more detailed in the filing.
  5. If a message requires action after the response, I flag it, add it to my task list, then file it. In Mail, when I click on the word Flagged in the sidebar, all flagged messages are displayed. No need to move it into an action folder (which I always found scary to look in) and then refile it when the action is done. (If I’m being completely honest, I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll leave that email in my inbox to deal with tomorrow.)
  6. At the end of each day, I go through any emails left in my inbox, respond as necessary, file and delete. It’s that simple.

The number of emails that land in my inbox each day isn’t huge—usually less than 100—and this system works very well for me. It’s very easy to maintain. I typically take a break on the weekends, which means that I have a backlog to deal with Monday morning. (That’s not ideal, but the break feels important.) During the week, I strive for—and unless I’m traveling, almost always achieve—inbox zero.

I read my email on my iPhone and, occasionally, my iPad (using the Mail app) when I’m out in the world. I automatically blind copy myself on outgoing messages sent from my iPhone or iPad, so those messages end up in my inbox on my computer. I just file them along with the rest, thus maintaining a correspondence record in my Mail program on my computer. But I don’t worry about Inbox Zero on my mobile devices. I let the devices delete all messages at certain thresholds.

I have a secret weapon in my email success: an accountability buddy. After I clear out my inbox, I email my friend and colleague Aby Garvey about the status of my inbox. It’s highly motivating.

Inbox Zero may or may not be attractive for you. It’s certainly been helpful for me and if you’re tempted, I hope you find this post helpful!

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About Janine

Janine Adams

Hello! I’m Janine Adams — a certified professional organizer based in St. Louis, and the creator of Peace of Mind Organizing®.

I love order, harmony + beauty, but I believe that the way that you feel about yourself and your home is what truly matters.

If you’re ready to de­clutter with a purpose and add more ease to your life, you’ve found the right blog — and you’ve found the right gal.

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