UPDATES&INSIGHTS: ADVISORY – Inbox Zero: What You (and Your Business) Really Need

As the owner of your business, you must work on both your highest priorities and those Covey Quadrant 2 activities that are important, but not urgent, in order to move your business forward and accomplish your truly big goals.  For many owners and executives, one of biggest impediments to focusing on high priority activities is managing email.

For the past 15 months, I have been living the life of inbox zero.  And it is a wonderful life.  I committed to inbox zero over the holiday break in 2016 with high hopes that I could sustain the required discipline once the “whirlwind” of real work started by mid-January.  I am happy to report that the benefits are amazing, it has been relatively easy to maintain, and I have no intention of turning back.

6 Ways You’ll Benefit from Inbox Zero

  1. You’ll have a shorter “To Do” list 

    Prior to inbox zero, even though I had a written “To Do” list, my real list was my inbox.  I used emails to drive what I worked on each day, usually by scanning my inbox and responding by the requested deadline or by using that magical, if not always reliable, internal clock to respond in an “acceptable” length of time.

    Now I use the 90/10 rule:  90% of email received can be ignored, scanned and deleted, or scanned and saved.  The remaining 10% can be delegated, responded to in 2 minutes or less, or actually added to my written “To Do” list and then saved.

  2. You’ll read most emails only once 

    When your inbox holds a few hundred or a few thousand emails and/or is functionally your “To Do” list, then you will be reading and rereading those emails dozens of times.  Saving that time and eliminating the anxiety that goes along with continually reminding yourself you have not yet responded is a powerful improvement to your life.

  3. You’ll let go of anxiety by batching email activity 

    I have learned to not let email crowd out my ability to do my most important tasks first while I am rested and at my best.  Usually I take a sneak a peek at my email when I start up my computer just to be sure that a client does not have an urgent need, but then I leave email behind to focus on my highest priority of the day.  I have learned not to fret that emails are stacking up while I am doing this work.  Knowing that I am doing my most important work frees me up to not fret that something more important or urgent might be in my inbox.

    Then, usually one to three hours later, I flip back to my inbox and clear as many emails as possible using the 90/10 rule above.  For those emails that require a more detailed response than could be written in two minutes, I assign that response time to my batching process or hand write them onto my “To Do” list, file the email away either in an “Action” folder or in my universal email file (see below), and move back to my priorities for the day.  I use this process two or three times each day.

  4. You’ll learn to manage the most dangerous time of day

    I have also become progressively more aware that checking email is the most dangerous time of the day for derailing my productivity.  Whether it is that sneak peek in the morning or a designated batching time, processing email is the riskiest time of the day for getting pulled into an hour-long (or more) vortex of low priority work.  Having a heightened sense of this risk is key to avoiding getting sucked away from your highest and best use for the day.

    Finally, one of the keys to successful batching is turning off all email notifications on your computer, phone, and tablet.  If the computer dings and/or provides that shadow summary in the corner of the screen, it is almost impossible not to flip to your inbox and respond.  Then, the next thing you know, it is thirty minutes later and all you have done is read email, chased threads that do not matter, and read a linked article or two that had nothing to do with moving your company forward that day.

  5. You’ll recall emails faster using search instead of folders

    A colleague suggested that instead of creating dozens of email folders to archive emails for future reference, create just one folder (mine is labeled “A.Filing”) and create a “quick step” button (MS Outlook) to move emails for archiving.  When I need to find an archived email, I no longer have to remember which folder I stored it in.  I simply go to the search box, enter a keyword or name, and Outlook pulls it up for me.  By using search instead of my memory, I can find archived emails faster and without having the clutter of a few dozen email folders that have to be maintained.

  6. You’ll be just as responsive (or maybe more so)

    Despite turning off notifications and batching email responses to two or three times daily, I believe I am just as responsive to clients and colleagues as I ever have been.  Although prior to inbox zero there were some emails that were responded to almost instantaneously because I was monitoring email all day, many emails went days or longer without response because they were buried in all the other emails deemed more urgent.

    Most emails do not need an immediate response, and frankly, the sender is probably not expecting one.  If they are, they can interrupt you with a text or Skype message.  In most cases, a solid response within two to four hours is more than acceptable.  And since on most days I can see all of my inbox emails on one page of my preview screen, it is unlikely I’ll completely miss an email and fail to respond.

There are many tools and applications to help you achieve inbox zero.  For the most part, it takes a combination of a few simple practices like those discussed above, along with some daily discipline.  If you want to be able focus more on your business and your goals, and less on other people’s priorities, you will benefit greatly from inbox zero.  Go for it.