Leading Ladies - Managing Your Inbox Using 'Inbox Zero'

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"Your inbox is so empty!" she said accusingly.

My colleague glanced back at her own screen to see a page full of thousands of emails. Some flagged some not. Some had even been given special colours a few months ago but the shadow of organisation seemed to have faded and all you could see was red.

"Inbox Zero" I said.

A few years ago I discovered 'Inbox Zero'; a ruthless method of keep clutter out of your inbox with the aim to reach a completely empty inbox hence the name.

At the time I was the sort of person, like my client, who would just let emails accumulate. I used flags to highlight anything important and just searched the rest. But I would often lose track of things, find that emails were missing and just generally hating dealing with my emails.

So when I stumbled upon this new theory for dealing with emails I was hopeful but also very doubtful I could manage it for long.

Step 1:

My first move was to deposit everything prior to my inbox zero start date into a folder. My lack of previous organisation skills had made it impossible to consider sorting all of my inbox tray in one go so I decided to clear my head by clearing my inbox from the start. It all went into a folder ominously named: 'Pre-Zero'.

Step 2:

I started creating folders. My new online life would be much more organised. I started making folders for all the common emails I received. Keeping in mind that I work for HR, I made country and employee specific folders, benefit specific folders, recruitment folders separated by agency, payroll specific folders and basic folders for things like newsletters, webinars or company notices that I might want to refer to later instead of deleting.

I tried not to overwhelm my menu with folders and made rules in my head for overlaps.

Step 3:

Get sorting. As the emails started coming in I would assess them and sort them. Outstanding items would remain in my inbox with a flag while items that I had actioned would immediately move to their respective folders. I have a to do list in excel that I use to aid the tracking of tasks so no need to leave emails out of their folders even if I'm still waiting on something. 

I soon found I was dealing with things much quicker as I worked to clear my inbox. Instead of waiting on something I would action it immediately so that I could move the email out of my way and get on with the next one. Sometimes I found things sitting in my inbox for too long which helped to remind me to not only up my productivity but also get creative with solutions. If something wasn't working to solve a problem the email sitting there served as a reminder and I went out of my way to figure out why. It was almost like a game.

Some people use a 'Response Needed' folder but I find, so long as I keep the number of items low, having it right in front of me really helps me focus on the urgent tasks left outstanding.

Step 4:

Keep the momentum. It's been 2 years and I'm still using this method to deal with my emails. I've moved jobs 2 times now and each time I've found, without fail, this is the best system to get work done quickly and efficiently. 

I'm constantly complimented on the speed in which I deal with things but it's all down to minimising procrastination by acting fast on incoming items. Part of that is inbox zero. It helps me have a goal to empty my inbox and provides me with the motivation to clear to do list items as quickly as possible in order to achieve that.

Although my method isn't exactly how it's creator, Merlin Mann, intended it to be customising and owning your own method to dealing with emails is key in making sure this is a long term solution for you.

How do you deal with your constant incoming emails? Do you hoard or do you sort?