A System For Email Productivity

How to regularly get to “inbox zero”…

George Kao
Oct 21, 2013 · 5 min read

All of your emails can fit into one of the following 7 categories…

  1. No need to reply, and not important to read. Take a moment and consider this: most of your emails are in this category. Therefore, generously apply the archive or delete function! And if it is a newsletter you rarely read, do yourself a favor — unsubscribe. If the information is important, trust that it will come to you another way, e.g. through a personal recommendation. It will show up again if it is truly worthwhile.
  2. File away. This category includes tax receipts, examples of great emails you want to emulate, and specific info for a project you’re working on. It can be helpful to create folders for these, but don’t get carried away with categorization. If you find yourself creating many folders, you need to simplify your work or life. And when you need to find an email again, practice using your email software’s search function rather than looking through folders.
  3. Optional response. No need to respond, but would be more courteous if you did.
  4. Optional reading. Interesting to read, but not required. Practice putting as many emails as possible into this category and the previous one. This practice is essential to improving email productivity. You might want to use email filters (e.g. in gmail) to automatically move newsletters into your “Optional Reading” folder. Alternatively, change the email address you use to subscribe to mailing lists… gmail makes it easy with aliases such as yourname+newsletter@gmail.com.
  5. Required to respond today. Go ahead and respond in the moment—if important and urgent—or at the end of your day when clearing out your inbox.
  6. Required to respond but not today. Distance provides perspective. If an email doesn’t require a response today, put it in a folder named the day you would like to respond (Monday, Thursday, etc.) Then on that day, go into that folder and respond. For example you might want to follow a “morning checklist” that includes “Open today’s email folder.”
    Note: I don’t create folders for this category anymore… I now use Google Inbox (an updated version of Gmail) which has the snooze feature. Much easier! If you don’t use Gmail try FollowUpThen.com.
  7. Undecided. Rather than suffer from paralysis by analysis, just put it into one of the above categories!

Create email folders for #2, #3, #4, and #6 (unless you automate it.)

10 Tips To Make Your Email Processing More Efficient

  1. Have a specific time to process your email. I spend 30 minutes at the end of each workday clearing my email inbox to zero. This is more efficient than trying to clear my inbox throughout the day. The “batching” principle applies here: the less often you switch activities, the more efficiency you tend to experience.
  2. What if you get urgent emails? I do check my email throughout the day, about once an hour, to see if there’s something urgent & important. If an immediate response is truly required, I do it. But I often practice putting off a response until my end of day processing. Remember: distance provides perspective. The longer you can wait to respond to an email, the more perspective you’ll have on the issue. By the end of day, the issue may have resolved itself. When people figure things out for themselves, rather than rely on you, they become more empowered to solve future problems… which equals less email for you to process.
  3. Anytime you’re not checking email, close your email software. Or at least make sure so you don’t see the number of new emails. This way, you’re not draining your subconscious energy, continuing to wonder if you’re getting messages. And definitely turn off your email notificationsaudio and visual — for new messages. Don’t be a pavlovian dog. And you don’t work in a nuclear power plant… even if you did, the urgent & important stuff wouldn’t come via email :)
  4. I recommend clearing your inbox to zero just one time a day — at the end of your workday — so your motivation to finish your day will naturally speed up your email processing. And when you do, set an intention to process your email quickly, like a game. (You can even try this “email game” tool.) Say to yourself “Next, Next, Next,” as you delete or archive most emails, rather than spend energy with each and every email.
  5. Write shorter emails. What is the 1 main thing you want to communicate? Say it concisely. The shorter your emails, the shorter their response tends to be. It saves everyone time.
  6. However: be positive & friendly. Emails can quickly build, or erode, relationships. I always try to come across as encouraging and kind, and start or end my emails with something appreciative about the recipient or the situation. For example, “I appreciate your thoughtful message here.” or “Hoping the rest of your week goes well!” Think of the primary purpose of emails you write to be relational (improving trust and camaraderie in relationships) and secondarily transactional (asking/answering questions, proposing ideas, etc.)
  7. When doing your end-of-day inbox clearing, process your email from top down. If you skip around, it’s inefficient. To get to zero you need to clear all inbox emails anyway, so start at the top.
  8. Only open a few emails, while archiving/deleting the rest. Most of us subscribe to too many newsletters and every couple of months you’ll find that you’ve again subscribed to more than you actually read. Simply resolve to open and respond to the personal and private emails only. The rest? Put it in “Optional Response” or “Optional Reading” — or archive/delete! In fact, learn how to quickly archive/delete emails. I love Google Inbox’s sweep feature. I do this after I’ve responded to the emails I need to respond to. Then, I quickly archive the rest. It creates a palpable feeling of lightness!
  9. Create email templates. When you find yourself replying with the same paragraph or message time and again, it is time to copy and paste that content to a document called Email Templates. Whenever you are processing email, open that document so you can copy/paste whatever you need.
  10. If you have any time remaining after you do the above—or in your spare time—you can go into your Optional Response & Optional Reading email folders and chip away at them. Remember: they are optional, so only spend your spare time on them. Balance in your life is more important than clearing your optional folders!

Try these rules as a starting point to organize your emails. Then customize it for yourself, so you can reach inbox ease everyday.

This is a Creative Commons post.

You are welcome to share it forward. Make the email world a better place!

Freedom, by luchilu on Flickr

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