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A System For Email Productivity

How to regularly get to “inbox zero”…

A System For Email Productivity

How to regularly get to “inbox zero”…


Consider that all your emails can be seen as fitting into one of these 7 categories…

  1. No need to reply nor read (at the most, maybe glance at) — generously apply the archive/delete function :)
  2. File away (tax receipts, examples of great emails, info needed for a project) — create fewer folders if possible; archive most emails and just practice using the search function when you need it.
  3. Optional response (no need to respond, but would be more courteous if you did)
  4. Optional reading (would be nice to read, not required) — practice putting as many emails in this, and the previous category, as possible. This practice is key to growing your email productivity.
  5. Required to respond (e.g. emails from a boss, biz partner, client) but not today. Distance creates perspective. If an email doesn’t require a response today, put it in a folder named the day you would like to respond (Monday, Tuesday, etc.) then on that day, go into that folder. (For example you might want to follow a “morning checklist” that includes “open the email folder for today.”) Tools to automate this: FollowUpThen.com, FollowUp.cc, and ActiveInbox for Gmail (I use the latter.)
  6. Required to respond today — go ahead and respond either in the moment (if truly urgent) or at the end of your workday when you are processing your inbox.
  7. Follow up. This is either an email you get — or an email you send— that you want to follow up with that person in the future. Use the system I suggest in #5 above.

Create email folders for #2-5 above.

#2 will be multiple folders depending on projects.

#3 and #4 can just be one folder each.

#5 could be multiple folders too — a different folder for each weekday, and another set of folders for each month, or you can use ActiveInbox as I suggested above.


Making your email processing more efficient:

  1. Have a set time to process your email. I spend 30-60 minutes at the end of each workday clearing my email inbox to zero. This is more efficient than trying to clear your inbox to zero throughout the day. Why? Because of the“batching” principle. The less often you switch activities, the more flow & efficiency you tend to experience.
  2. What if you get urgent emails? This is why I do check my email throughout the day (about once an hour) to see if there’s anything urgent and important. If it requires a response immediately, I do that. If not, I save the response for end of day. Remember this: distance creates perspective. The longer you can wait to respond to an email, the more perspective you’ll have. And sometimes by then, the issue has already been resolved.
  3. Anytime you’re not checking email, close your email software. This way, you’re not draining your subconscious energy continuing to wonder if you’re getting messages.
  4. When you process your inbox that one time a day (recommended: end of workday, so your natural motivation to finish your day will naturally speed up your email processing) — set an intention to process your email quickly, like a game. Say to yourself “Next, Next, Next,” as you delete or archive most emails, rather than spend energy with each & every email.
  5. Write shorter emails. Think about the one main thing you want to communicate say it concisely. The shorter your emails, the shorter the response will tend to be, which saves everyone time.
  6. However: be positive & friendly. Emails can build (or erode) relationships quickly. I always try to come across as encouraging, kind, and start or end my emails with something appreciative about them, or the situation. In most cases, think of the message’s purpose as more relational than transactional.
  7. Clear your email from top down. If you skip around, it’s usually inefficient. To get to zero you need to clear all inbox emails anyway, so start at the top (the latest/most recent) message.
  8. Only open a few emails, while archiving/deleting the rest. Most of us subscribe to too many newsletters, ones we don’t really need to read. Simply resolve to open/respond to the personal/private emails. The rest? Categorize according to the 7 Types of Emails listed at the top of this blog post. Learn how to quickly archive/delete emails: for example, in Gmail, it’s clicking the checkbox at the top of a page to select all, then click “archive” to get it all out of the inbox. I do this after I’ve responded to the emails I need to respond to. Then, I quickly archive the remainder.
  9. Consider creating email templates. Whenever you find yourself replying with the same content, it may be time to copy/paste that content to a document called Email Templates. Whenever you are processing email, open that document.
  10. If you have any time remaining to your email processing time, after you do the above, or in your spare time, you can go into your two Optional folders (optional response & optional reading) and chip away at them as you have time. Remember: they are optional, so just do whatever you have a bit of time for. Balance in your life is more important than clearing your Optional folders!

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Freedom, by luchilu on Flickr