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Don't be an Email Hoarder! Tips to Maintaining Inbox Zero

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Email can sometimes be a distraction or an excuse to escape from your work.

It feels productive to check your email every few minutes, but it takes time away from other important tasks. If you check your email during a scheduled break instead, you’ll be in a better position to stay on top of your responsibilities. And getting to ‘inbox zero’ is an effective approach.

Hongkiat defines ‘Inbox zero’ as “maintaining your inbox [so that] every type of email has its place and doesn’t clutter the main Inbox.”

In other words, we prevent tasks from falling through the cracks when we organize our email in a deliberate manner.

Getting to inbox zero isn’t a one-time action; it’s a process. Let’s get that process rolling.

Declare Email Bankruptcy

If you have an excessive amount of read or unread emails in your inbox, you can wipe the slate clean by declaring email bankruptcy.

This means deleting or archiving all emails more than a few weeks old. Don’t worry, archived emails are forever searchable (even though they leave your inbox) so you can still reference them going forward.

Email bankruptcy might sound drastic, but plenty of people do it and live to tell about it. 
~ Joseph Stromburg

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing; you could choose to address a few crucial emails, and then delete or archive the rest. The point is you’re accepting that there are some emails you’re just not going to be able to respond to, and that’s ok.

If you feel uncomfortable declaring email bankruptcy, consider turning on your auto-responder while you clean out your inbox with a message such as:

“Thanks for your email! Unfortunately due to high email volumes, I'm unable to respond to all requests. If your matter is urgent, I kindly ask that you contact me again on [insert date]. Thank you for your patience and understanding"

Tip: Email bankruptcy can also be used to get back on track after being away on vacation.

Clear the Clutter: Unsubscribe

You should only hold email subscriptions for content that directly informs your role. Otherwise, unsubscribe. If a subscription does inform your role, but you’re not opening most emails, unsubscribe. Can’t decide whether it’s important enough? Unsubscribe.

The less incoming email you have, the easier it is to maintain your inbox.

If you’re overwhelmed by how many email subscriptions you have, check out unroll.me. It’s a free service that mass unsubscribes you from emails you don’t open, and here’s how to use it.

You can also avoid future subscriptions by creating an email address you won’t actually use - just to sign up for various services while avoiding their marketing emails.

Tip: Consider using an RSS feed to manage important content, rather than having it in your inbox.

Establish your Own Guidelines

It’s important to develop your own system to maintain your inbox in a disciplined way. Here are three ideas to help.

  1. Set a schedule
    Plan when you’re going to process your email and stick to it. It can be every 30 minutes, or once a day; whatever works for you - as long as it isn’t based on impulse (email can become akin to social media). Also, processing your email during downtimes, like while you wait on a phone call, can help you double-dip and make the most of your time. Checking email can also be strategically scattered throughout your day to serve as a productive break from more intense, mindful work.
  2. Contribute at least 10 minutes
    Viewing email as a task, not a distraction, means allotting enough time to make significant progress. For example, if you check your email for only three minutes at a time, you’ll end up marking emails as unread or not acting on them, because you won’t have the time needed to actively make judgments about the importance of each email. That’s why checking your email in short, frequent bursts is actually inefficient.
  3. No notifications
    Check your email only when you’ve planned to, not when it pops up. Getting a notification for every incoming email inhibits your work.

Checking email every :59 seconds is tantamount to washing rice one grain at a time. 
~ Merlin Mann

Labels and Filters in Gmail

Labels

Labels are used to categorize your emails so that you can see what kinds of emails you have at a glance. Labels automatically mark your emails with colour-coded text that describes what they are - think of them as sticky-notes attached to your email.

For example, you could set up a label called “Colleagues” that appears on each email coming from an address with your nonprofit’s domain (e.g. ‘@techsoupcanada.ca’). This means whenever a colleague emails you, you know at a glance. By setting up labels ahead of time, you can make processing your email much easier in the long-term.

Gmail colour labels

Filters

You can use filters to manage your incoming email by automatically categorizing them based on rules.

For example, you could create a filter that places all emails containing the word ‘webinar’ under a label called “Webinars”. That way, you could open your “Webinars” label and look at only those specific kinds of emails.

You can also add different rules, such as ‘Skip the inbox’, which means emails containing the word ‘webinar’ would literally skip the inbox and only appear under the “Webinars” label. This means only key emails arrive in your inbox, while others are accessible under their respective labels.

Here are quick videos on how to set up labels and filters in Gmail, and folders in older versions of Outlook and Office 365, as well as more in-depth guides from Google and Microsoft

Useful Labels

You can create any kind of label that makes sense to you, but here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Remember, a label doesn’t have to be automatically applied to emails based on specific criteria, as outlined earlier. You can also apply labels manually to emails based on your own judgment.

Label Suggestion Description
Must Respond

Emails you couldn’t get to when you read them, but you have to follow up as soon as possible. By prioritizing emails in this label, you can help ensure you’re not unresponsive to key communications.

To-Do

Any email that results in an actionable item. If a colleague sends an email asking you to update the catalogue, for example, putting it in this label ensures it will get addressed at a later time.

To-Read

Emails you don’t have time to read, but are important communications. You can often tell what an email is about without even opening it, and sometimes we’re not in a position or state of mind to handle it. Placing those emails in a to-read list ensures you do get on top of it later.

Purchases

Anything you or your nonprofit buys in order to operate. If you ever need to clarify any expenses, or check old receipts, you can find it all here.

Events

Any email related to an event that you’re organizing, participating in, or otherwise involved. Keeping event-related emails together makes it easier to check up on your commitments.

Travel
(if you frequently travel for work)

Any emails about expenses related to your work travel. This makes it easy to keep track of reimbursements and other details.

Third-Party Apps

Any tools you use that have access to your inbox, such as MailChimp or Evernote. These emails can range from promotional content to important notices, but they’re mostly non-urgent and can be kept together.

Don’t Be an Inbox Hoarder: Options to Processing your Emails

It’s easy to fall into the mindset that every email is important. But maintaining your inbox means making realistic judgments about how to handle an email.

Stick to one simple rule: Marking an email as ‘unread’ is not an option. Once you open an email, you have to decide what to do with it then and there.

Asking yourself the following questions from Lifehack can help guide you.

If an email is lingering in my inbox, it means there is something I need to do. If it lingers for more than a day, something is wrong.
~ Anthony Casalena

  1. Can this wait? If yes, move to “Follow up/To-Do” label. If no, ask the next question.
  2. Does this really require my attention? If no, move to Archives/Trash. If yes, ask the next question.
  3. Can I direct them to a resource instead? If yes, send the resource link and move to Archives/Trash. If no, ask the next question.
  4. Am I ever going to respond or refer to this? If no, then move to Trash. If yes, respond in (ideally) less than 5-sentences, move to Archives/Trash and get it done.

Tip: You can set up a “Send & Archive” button to reply and archive an email at once. You can create an archives folder in Outlook too.

Respond Faster

Processing your email becomes more efficient by implementing these simple ideas.

Canned Responses/Replies

Canned responses are pre-written responses that you save, and then are able to use anytime. In other words, you can compose a response that would be applicable to many incoming emails and save it as a canned response.

For example, at TechSoup Canada we often received emails from guest authors who want to contribute to our blog. It would be a waste of time to respond from scratch; instead we have a canned response that gives potential authors a run-down of how they can contribute.

Canned Responses in Gmail

You still edit canned responses to fit the context of an email. However the bulk of the work - typing up the email - is already done.

You can set up canned responses with Gmail and Outlook.

Create a Concise Online Voice

It’s easier to process email if we limit how long our responses are. Even if you’re verbose at heart, creating a reputation for communicating concisely online can save you a lot of time - especially when it comes to addressing complicated problems.

This doesn’t mean you have to come off as cold, but rather to-the-point. This is also great practice in general because writing concisely helps you to be understood.

Use Keyboard Shortcuts

Although it requires an initial time investment to learn, using shortcuts will make processing your email faster. There’s a shortcut for virtually every function, but here are the ones you’ll likely use in your day-to-day work (for Gmail and Outlook users).

Good luck beginning the process of achieving inbox zero and taking control of your email.

Remember, it is a process. Take it slow by aiming to get to inbox 200 at first, for example, and then working down to 150, then 100, then 50, and finally to zero.

Don’t stress if it takes time to achieve - it will still pay dividends along the way, even if it’s not perfect.

The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there. Good luck!