Checking Email → Inbox Zero

A methodology for checking email that leads to inbox zero.

I wrote a post about time management, arguing that calendars, not to-do lists, are the right way to manage time. This is a follow up post on handling emails.


Goal: Inbox zero.

Philosophy: “Emails” is not one task. Each individual email is a task. Just like every task is different in the time commitment required, every email is different in the time commitment required. Emails should be handled like you handle other bags of miscellaneous tasks.

Principle: Touch every email in the inbox only once. Once an email has been touched, get it out of the way (archive it) so you do not need to touch it again.


Methodology for Checking Email

When you first see an email, read it to the extent that you intend to ever read it. If you’re not going to have enough time to read it to that extent, don’t open it. If you open an email and realize reading it will take longer than you thought and you don’t have the time, mark it as unread.
As soon as you read it:

  • If nothing needs to be done: archive the email.
  • If you need to reply and can do it now: reply and archive the email
    If you don’t reply now you’ll end up reading the email again later which is duplication of work. This is particularly wasteful if the time it takes to read the email is significant relative to how long it will take to reply (e.g., time to read > ~0.3x time to reply).
  • If the reply will take a while and you can’t do it now: make replying to this email a task on your calendar, archive the email.
    The calendar process now kicks in and takes care of this task like all your other tasks. If you don’t know what I mean, read Calendar. No to-do lists. Recall that when you put tasks on a calendar, you consider the urgency of the task. Do the same for emails.
  • If you need to do something before you can reply: make doing that thing a task on your calendar, archive the email.
    Optionally, include a reminder in that task to actually reply to the email.

Pro-tip: Depending on how good search is in your email client, you may want to move emails corresponding to calendar tasks to a “to reply” folder, and then archive them after the corresponding calendar tasks are done.


Outcome

  • Anytime you’re done checking email, you are at Inbox Zero.
  • Only emails in your inbox are ones you haven’t read.
  • Every email that needs your attention has either been replied to or you have a plan for (i.e., is a task on your calendar).
  • Every email is out of the way and will not repeatedly draw your attention. If you haven’t replied to it already, you will look at it again only when your calendar says it is time to take care of the email.
  • Emails tend to have a high variance in how much effort is required to take care of them. The time commitment involved for each (non-trivial) email is apparent in the tasks on your calendar instead of being hidden in the list of emails in your inbox.
  • There is no ambiguity about which email you’ve already responded to vs. not, what needs to be done for which email, etc.
  • No email (that you don’t want dropped) will get dropped.

Pro-tip: If there’s something you think of doing but cannot put it on your calendar right that instance, email it to yourself as a reminder. Next time you check email, it will get added to your calendar.