Zero Inbox Theory

Tips to make it work.

It’s a myth to some… a dream to others, but while certainly elusive a zero inbox can be achieved by mere mortals (yes even you!).

Email is a system that hasn’t really evolved over the last decade other a shift from thick client like Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird to web based access systems like Gmail. But fear not, no matter the system you access your email you can still instigate and successfully operate a zero inbox.

First I want to dispel a few common myths of zero inbox…

Myth One — It’s difficult to start a zero inbox.

This is possibly the most pessimistic of the myths I’ve heard about a zero inbox as you have already resigned for the system to fail before you start.

It’s not that hard, pick a time when you know you get the least amount of mail throughout the day and get to work. You need to start by drawing a line in the sand, that doesn’t mean you have to complete every outstanding email you have… far from it.

Myth Two — It’s hard to keep a zero inbox policy working.

Bzzzzzzz… Wrong.

Usually it’s the other way around where once you’ve started it’s hard to stop as you’ll be so amazingly efficient at processing your email that its become almost second nature.

Myth Three — I can’t start a zero inbox because of (insert excuse here)

Because why? There isn’t a single reason I can think of other than sheer laziness as to why you can’t start a zero inbox, what’s more interesting is that once you start it’s an addictive process to finish all your emails and file them accordingly.

Having an inbox is one thing, being able to lay your hands on a specific email, sent by a specific person on a specific date about a specific topic? That is just sheer gold, and it will make you look like a productivity genius to others (and you’ll turn into one soon enough!).

How to get started.

The first step, and possibly the hardest step is to draw the line in the sand and stick to it.

You need to grab all those thousands of emails you’ve been hoarding in your inbox for far too long and decide what you want to do with them. Archive them? Set up folders for each year of email? Shove them in one big folder marked old? DELETE THEM!?!

Okay so don’t delete them, you’ve collected it all for a reason, it’s conversational history you have had with people and companies over time so if you believe you can do without it then sure go ahead and delete it, if it’s an invoice, receipt or personal email then keep it around.

So you’ve cleared your inbox at this point yes? Nothing in it at all? On to the next step…

Congratulations on your new Zero Inbox.

Hooray! Well Done!… now sit down, shut up and listen.

While it may be a pristine desert void of an inbox right now, it won’t stay that way. You’ll need some help keeping like that and the two most powerful things you have at hand are email filter rules… and sheer discipline.

Email Filter Rules.

You know those things that really productive people use? What was that? No not that bloody special little pen they use… EMAIL FILTER RULES.

First off you might already use them, you may already know how to employ them but I’m guessing that even if you do you’ve got a ton of them and all for the wrong reasons.

An email filter rule isn’t there to file away your email into a folders sub-folder where it will never see the light of digital day again, they are there to help automate the fiddly repetitive tasks you have to do in order to call it complete. An example of this is auto categorisation of incoming emails.

If you get regular incoming email with the same subject line you could construct a rule that says:

When I see an email come in.

  • If it contains in the subject the word ‘important‘
  • and it is from: ‘‘
  • then flag the email as ‘high importance‘
  • and move into the ‘URGENT‘ folder.

Now while this is a simple rule you can also create heavily complex types of rules that may auto-respond to the incoming email, it might automatically add the person as a contact, forward a copy of the email through to other people and so forth. The limitation of filter rules really depends on your email client.

Lets take a simple system of rules that you could apply to your emails right now.

Create the two folders listed below:

  • Receipts
  • Invoices

So we have two folders which we will categorise incoming emails, now lets look at what the rule for ‘Receipts’ will look like.

When I see an email come in.

  • If it contains in the subject the word ‘receipt‘
  • then set the category to ‘receipt‘
  • and move into the ‘Reciepts‘ folder.

So with the above rule you should be able to work out the rule for Invoices.

Now this of course only deals with two email possibilities, but rules that categorise and move your email into areas other than your inbox are key to an efficient zero inbox.

Self Discipline.

So you’ve got a set of rules that auto-tag, categorise, label and move email from your inbox… great work, but without self discipline to process all the other email cruft you get during the day then your inbox will soon be full of crap.

So how do you gain email self discipline? Well it’s pretty simple really, here it is in a nutshell:

  • If you want to keep it, ARCHIVE IT!
  • If you’ll never need it, DELETE IT!

Yes it is just that easy, most modern email systems/clients have excellent search functions that will allow you to use multiple parameters or search terms to find relevant email, if you already know that it’s something in a particular category then you’ve just done 85% of the work, let the email system/client do all the heavy lifting for you rather than sitting there sifting through a thousand emails attempting to find that one important email.

One Last Tip.

You know all that junky email you get, no not the spam to enlarge your penis size or to purchase a lifetime supply of Chinese Viagra, I mean the stuff you actually signed up for, the special offers from deal sites, the quarterly email that comes out from that shoe company you purchased some stuff off last Christmas… The Crap-mail as I call it.

Do yourself a favour and set up a final rule, do it for yourself, do it for the children, hell do it for the lack of atmosphere on the moon for all I care but do it none the less.

The rule is called ‘BULK’ and create a folder to match it, in this rule tag all of that crappy crap-mail you get and delegate it to forever live in this folder. Crap-mail is best for when you have some time to kill and you want something to do, think of it like reading the catalogues you get in your snail-mail, it just takes up useless space and mostly you’ll never purchase anything from these companies again but never the less we all give weight to it because you might get a good deal one day.

Which is completely true, so if you’re looking for a new something-or-other search away in the minefield of your ‘Bulk’ folder.

Otherwise, let the rule auto-handle it for you.

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