Do you get way too much work email? While it’s important to routinely review and process email, the question is whether getting to inbox zero is worth it. And if so, what’s the best way to accomplish this?
Getting to inbox zero boosts overall productivity, reduces distraction, and helps leaders achieve their most significant goals. My Empowered Productivity System has helped thousands of leaders manage email at work and get to inbox zero at least one or more times per week.
Getting to inbox zero does not mean you need to answer, or even read, every message you receive. It also doesn’t mean you constantly clear out your inbox. Originally coined by Merlin Mann, the term refers to how long it takes to use your inbox, and not how many messages are in it.
As a productivity trainer, I work with CEOs and other busy professionals who receive an average of 100 emails per day. If they spend 2 minutes handling each email, that’s 3 hours and 20 minutes per day they need just for dealing with email!
In this article, I’ll show you the strategies that cut that time way down. My method has truly helped my clients regain control of their inboxes.
How to Manage Too Much Work Email
Ready to tame your inbox and feel much more on top of your work and your life? Follow these steps:
1. Create an “old emails” folder.
Start by creating a folder called “old emails.” Move all your emails you received prior to this current week into the “old emails to process” folder.
Yes, I know that could be thousands and thousands of emails. But you’re going to need a fresh start that will declutter your mind and optimize productivity. And these emails aren’t going too far—just out of your inbox.
Go through them later if you need to. But if you haven’t dealt with them yet, you probably never will. And resist the urge to “pick and choose” what you move to that folder and what you leave in your inbox. That’s a waste of time that you will never get back, and you’ll get no return from it. Later, if you feel you must, you can sort your “old emails to process” folder using this strategy.
2. Resolve to get to inbox zero, because it’s worth it.
This step is mostly mental: recognize that your email inbox is for receiving and processing messages only. Change your relationship with your inbox. Keep whatever you want to keep. Just stop deferring the messages in your email inbox to “later,” because—let’s face it—later never comes.
Move whatever email messages you think you might need to other “boxes” or folders, just not in your inbox. This way, you’ll know that if it’s in your inbox, you haven’t read it or dealt with it. Once you read and deal with it, resolve to move it out of your inbox using the strategies below.
Without systematically and routinely zeroing out your inbox, it’s not only possible but quite likely that you’ll miss important assignments, feedback, or invitations that will help you achieve your most significant results.
Plus, having hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of messages in your inbox is distracting and stressful. You probably don’t realize that yet, but you will once you routinely get to inbox zero.
So embrace the idea that getting to inbox zero will be worth the effort in increased clarity, productivity and peace of mind. I promise, it will!
3. Create rules.
Let me be clear: I don’t believe every message you receive deserves your attention. In fact, probably many don’t.
As you receive messages, if they don’t deserve your attention—now or ever—make sure they never land in your primary inbox ever again. Create rules, use filtering tools, mark as junk, unsubscribe—all of these techniques will help you vastly decrease the amount of email you receive. I’m also a big fan of being ruthless with my “delete” key. Learn more about filtering in step 1 of this article.
4. Respond quickly if you can, then delete the email.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done and a former colleague of mine, coined the “two-minute rule.” In his book, Allen explains, “If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it’s defined.” The reason is that it will take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to finish it the first time you notice it.
This rule applies to processing email, so if you feel you can read and respond to an email within about 2 minutes, then go ahead and do so while you are processing your inbox.
Once you send the response, delete the email. It will go into your trash folder. Learn more about how to use the 2-minute rule here.
5. Create broad folders to keep messages you can’t delete.
If there are email messages you want to keep, make a few—just a few!— folders with broad titles such as “Team Communication” or “Clients.” Then move messages you’d like to save out of your inbox and into the proper folders.
A word of caution here: don’t set up subfolders within these folders. It will take you too long to file messages and make it harder to retrieve them if you need to find them later.
If you do need it later, you’ll probably just use the search feature, anyway. So why bother having dozens or hundreds of email folders? Make the process of filing email messages faster, easier, and more efficient by having only a handful of folders where you save emails.
6. Add items to your task list.
If the email contains a task that will take you more than a minute or two to complete, move it to your task list and delete the email from your inbox.
When you move a task to your task list, write a very specific subject line about the task you need to complete. For example, don’t write, “accounting invoices.” Instead write, “Pay video production invoice.” Learn more about making your task list more actionable here.
7. Delete processed emails, but leave them in the trash.
Once you’ve added the task to your task list, delete the email if you can, but set your email client to leave your deleted items in your trash folder for some extended period of time.
Then when/if you need to respond to the email, just search for it in your trash folder and reply from there.
Keep in mind that many emails you receive don’t need to be saved, and saving miscellaneous things you’ll never need will make it harder to find the important things you do need. It can also slow down your computer and create complaints from your IT department that you’re using too much space on the server. Delete messages whenever possible.
8. Insert the original message into the task.
If you’re using Microsoft Outlook for your tasks, another option instead of answering the message from your trash folder is to “insert” the message (as a complete email message) into the task, and reply from there.
Actually, creating a task with the specific action you need to take in the subject line of the task and inserting the message is much more efficient than “flagging” the email. The reason is that flagging the email doesn’t tell you anything about the action you need to take.
You’ll still have to re-read the email to figure out what you need to do, and you can’t prioritize that task with your other tasks until you reread it. Essentially, flagging is just a waste of your time that causes you to read the same emails over and over.
Repeat Steps as Often as Possible
Having tons of already-read messages in your inbox is like opening your mail in your snail-mail box daily, and then shoving all the open letters back in the box every day. You think you know what you’ve already looked at, but are you sure you haven’t missed anything?
How many times have you re-read the same message?
How much of your precious time has that wasted?
I don’t clear my inbox messages every day, but when I don’t, I know I’m not on top of my work.
Carving out the time to get to inbox zero at least weekly, and more often if you can, will increase your productivity by ensuring that no important emails are overlooked, that you only have to read them once, and that you don’t stress over things you might have forgotten.
This will allow you to regain productive time back into your workday, reduce your distraction, and give you a sense of control over your workload.
Bonus: Evaluate Your Emails
Look critically at the email messages you receive, and consider this exercise, especially if you’re a leader.
If the way you (or your team) receive work is by random, ad-hoc emails on any topic from virtually anyone in the world, then you (and your organization) are not operating efficiently. Endless emails are not the way to receive or assign knowledge work.
For a few days or a week, for every “real” email you receive (an actual message from a real person that you need to deal with), write on a sticky note the type of email it is. For example, “client (or colleague, or vendor) request about X” or “task from boss about X” or “request from team member about X.”
Put those sticky notes on a wall. At the end of the week, group the sticky notes together by type. First by type of message (e.g. task, team member request, client request etc.), and then by topic (the “x” in the preceding examples).
This will give you a “big picture” view of your email that should help you evaluate your communication and workflow more strategically. Consider whether you can put processes into place that would eliminate the need for some of these messages.
For example, perhaps questions and requests regarding specific team projects could be eliminated with the use of a project management tool. Or requests from clients could be routed to one point person (or a ticketing system) and then answered, or assigned to the most appropriate staffer.
Ultimately, the best way to regain control over your email communication is to make your work more efficient and drastically reduce the amount of email you receive.
So Is Getting to Inbox Zero Worth It?
Many productivity experts have wrestled with the question of whether getting to zero inbox is worth it. Over the years, I’ve trained thousands of leaders and managers in companies across the globe. Early in my career, I was open to the possibility that zeroing out the inbox could be a waste of time for my clients. But experience has taught me just the opposite—assuming they don’t have the freedom (as some do) to disregard their email. For those who don’t, the system explained above has proven effective for my clients, and has dramatically lowered their stress.
If you zero out your inbox without a systematic approach, you’re likely to just be creating busy work for yourself. Further, you’re unlikely to have a coherent method for capturing tasks that need to be completed, and for finding emails that need to be retrieved at a later time.
So yes, routinely clear out your inbox. But do it the right way.
What Is the Empowered Productivity™ System?
Learning to manage email can be a first step in learning to get back in the driver’s seat of your work. But managing your communication is just one part of getting on top of your daily responsibilities and feeling energized and motivated every day.
The Empowered Productivity System is the methodology I teach to help leaders, teams, and solo contributors stave off burnout, increase productivity, and experience more joy every single day.
I teach Empowered Productivity for individuals via my online, video-based, self-paced course. You can learn much more about it by clicking the button below.Empowered Productivity for Individuals
I also offer Empowered Productivity for Teams via in-person or virtual training sessions. If you’re a CEO or team leader looking to help your team members optimize their effectiveness at work and at home, contact me by clicking the button below.Empowered Productivity for Teams
So How Will You Handle Too Much Work Email?
Trying to squeeze email management in between other tasks is a losing battle. Instead, acknowledge that email is real work and deserves real time for reviewing and processing. Then adopt my system, which has proven to help leaders optimize their productivity and manage large volumes of email at work.