I loathe email. Not email marketing, mind you. I love that!
I loathe the BCCs, the reply-alls, the incomplete responses, and the mind-numbingly long threads of email communication. Some people use email and use it well. I don’t mind that. I actually rather like it. Others abuse it.
That’s why I embraced Inbox Zero after seeing a presentation by Bay Area productivity guru and 43 Folders founder Merlin Mann a few years ago.
In the presentation, he introduced his Inbox Zero methodology, which aims to help busy professionals “reclaim your email, your attention, and your life.” I adapted a lot of that presentation into my own work and continue to this day.
Here are a few Inbox Zero tips I learned from Mann and adapted for my own working style.
Focus on your work, not your email.
As soon as an email hits your inbox, you probably get a pop-up alert if you use a desktop email client and a chime or ding or some other noise if you use a smartphone. Every new email breaks your attention as your mind moves from the task at hand to your inbox – whether you have time to deal with the contents of the email or not.
So, first things first, turn off all those alerts and close out your email interface. (Here’s how to turn off notifications on Gmail, Outlook, iPhone and Android.)
From now on, email response is a task not a disruption. You’ll only look at it when you have time to address it. When I worked for a startup, I checked email once in the morning, once around lunch, and once after hours. That was it. As long as you respond within 24 hours, most people won’t mind.
Never touch an email in your inbox twice.
When you walk to your physical mailbox, do you leaf through your letters and then put them back? No! You toss half of them in the trash, drop the magazines on the coffee table, and set the rest on your desk.
Your email inbox is no different from your physical mailbox. Don’t leave stuff in there. When the time comes to read and respond to email (as discussed above), be aggressive. One touch. One action.
If you can reply quickly, do so. Just make sure you’re fully addressing the contents of the email so you know you won’t get a follow-up from the sender.
If you need more time to reply or the email implies a task to be completed, move it to a to-do list or an “action required” folder in your email. Your inbox is for communication, not task management. Don’t store tasks in your inbox.
Email less. If you must email, keep it short.
The more email you send, the more you receive. So email less. That means no more “thank you” emails. No more reply-alls. No more lengthy back-and-forths that could be resolved in a two-minute phone call.
If you must email, keep it short. Be succinct. Get to the point. Make your “ask” obvious. Avoid confusion at all costs, especially since the recipient may or may not be multitasking in traffic or on the john.
This is especially important if you work in a company or participate in community projects. You can help everyone else get to inbox zero by hammering their inbox less. You may even begin to train people that, when you do send an email, it’s an email worth reading.
Become the master of your email domain.
Reigning in your inbox takes more than a system. It takes discipline. To truly become the master of your email domain, you have to overcome the impulse to respond to – or at least read – every email immediately.
Hopefully you can show a little more self-control than George Costanza.
Treat email response like a task rather than a distraction. Treat your inbox like a communication tool rather than a to-do list. And you’ll be well on your way to achieving Inbox Zero.