I'm going to get a lot of hate (or maybe love and admiration!) for this, but I am an Inbox Zero person. I haven't always been this way, but once I saw that light, I was transformed.
As someone with lots of anxiety, inbox zero has been a solution for me to manage my task list and feel less overwhelmed when I open my computer each morning. It has been a way for me to feel in control my day and my to-do list—and not let my to-do list control me.
And I know what you're thinking—"Wow! You must be super Type A!" Well, yes, that's true....BUT it doesn't take a Type A person to follow this Inbox Zero strategy.
What is Inbox Zero?
Let's get one thing really clear. Inbox zero does not mean no emails ever. Inbox zero means you have a strategy for managing your inbox so at the end of the day, it's empty. It means emptying your inbox so you can rest easy knowing you have a vision for what needs to happen when you log in to work the next day. It means you're not glued to your email every waking hour of the day.
But, in order to achieve the seemingly impossible inbox zero, there are systems and rules you need in place.
Rule #1: Set up Folders
I get hundreds of emails every day. This isn't a brag or a cry for help. It's just a fact. The best way to manage these hundreds of messages is to stay organized.
Do this by setting up folders for specific clients and projects. For example, I have a receipts folder for my expenses, an individual folder for each of my clients, and even folders for specific trips I'm planning.
Rule #2: Get a Project Management System
Louder for the people in the back...YOUR EMAIL INBOX IS NOT YOUR PROJECT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM.
When you have a dedicated project management system (I like ClickUp and Asana—both with a free tier), you'll be able to put deadlines to tasks and add any additional notes, files, and subtasks you need to get the job done. My entire inbox zero strategy hinges on my project management system. Without it, there is no strategy.
Ruler #3: Stop Checking Your Email
Yes. You read that right.
Email inboxes are overwhelming. And there's something you need to come to terms with: the emails will keep coming...no matter how hard you try to stop them.
To combat that feeling of overwhelm, check your email less. If you have email notifications on your desktop or phone, turn them off. If you keep a browser tab open for your email, close it. Instead, dedicate specific times to checking emails. Three times a day should suffice. I check my email once in the morning when I start working, after lunch, and once about an hour before I end my work day.
I promise that if something is on fire, someone will find a way to contact you (remember—your phone also works for calls). Don't let your email inbox dictate your entire day. You are in control of how you spend your time.
The Secret to Achieving Inbox Zero
There are three types of emails that everyone receives. There are the Dos, the Deletes, and the Delegates. When you begin to think about your emails in these three categories, you can quickly filter through your inbox and focus only on the messages that matter.
If it's a "delete" email, well…you know what to do…and do it immediately. I consider client emails that don't require action or a response to be "delete" emails, however, I file them in their respective folders (rule #1). Here are a few emails that fall into the delete category:
- Marketing emails that you're not interested in (bonus: you should unsubscribe while you're here).
- Emails that don't need a response
- Emails that don't require action (i.e., "Thanks!")
If it's a “do” email, it requires further action or follow up. And while many people consider their inbox to be their to-do list, that doesn't help you manage your task list (see rule #2)...because emails will continue to roll in. *Cue the sense of dread and overwhelm*
When an email requires further action, read the message, determine your next step, and add a task into your project management system. If the email merits a response (and this is the only time I'll say this!) you can leave it in your inbox as long as you respond within 24 hours.
This response doesn't have to be a finite solution to the problem or a completed project—it can just be a quick note that you're working on it. You're never too busy to send this email. It takes less than 30 seconds and gives you more time to formulate an educated response.
"Delegate" emails need to be sent or assigned to someone else—usually someone on your team. After you open these emails, immediately delegate them to someone else (using Slack, your project management system, or that handy "forward" feature in all email accounts). If you know you need to delegate the task but you're not sure who it needs to go, or you need more information before you send it, add it to your project management system so you can focus on it later.
Become an Inbox Hero with Inbox Zero!
Email is (unfortunately) a fact of life. But it doesn't have to rule your entire wellbeing. When you commit to managing your inbox, you'll feel the effects—less dread, less overwhelm, and less stress—so you can focus on building your business.