My Inbox Zero Method

Good Morning! I said I’d write a twitter thread about inbox zero, but it was kinda too long for one, so instead it’s a blog post. Here we go, I wrote this mostly as I worked on getting back to inbox zero yesterday.

I just got back from 4 days of vacation, and I had let everyone know I would be on vacation, so I didn’t get as many emails as normal (and outlook tells other people in your org that you’re on vacation before they send you an email). Thankfully I only had around 200 emails to go through.

I did hit inbox zero before I left for vacation, that lasted about 5 minutes. But I didn’t want to be checking my email constantly. I did checked it twice to make sure nothing urgent came in, and I responded to the one super urgent email I had.

So, here’s how I got back to inbox zero.

Ground Rules

  1. the inbox is a to-do list, but not the only to-do list
  2. you don’t need to be on as many listservs as you think, and if there’s a daily, or better weekly, digest for it you should be using that
  3. if you’ve dealt with an email it gets filed
  4. dealt with means that you have no current actions for it
  5. if you’re waiting on a response via email it’s dealt with
  6. if you added it to your formal to-do list it’s dealt with
  7. nested folders are your friend
  8. only have folders you use a lot

Folders

Now lets talk folders. They need to be helpful and aligned with your job. Both Gmail and Outlook have great search functions, if you need to look something up, they will find it for you, so the folders are to help you focus your future searches. I’m using generalized names for the folders here but in my actual inbox they say the specific name of the org/division/union/department/etc.

Key folders to have:

  • Org wide general: for all those emails from the president, vps, ceos, etc. that you want to be able to access again in the future but never need replies, I don’t generally have sub folders here.
  • Divisional general: for anything coming from your sub-group, division, faculty, etc. Again, no subfolders.
  • Union: All union stuff goes here, if you’re in a union committee or on the board create a subfolder for all union committee stuff or all board stuff.
  • Professional Development: keep all your PD emails together, I don’t use subfolders here, but if you are engaged in a long term PD it should have one
  • HR & Benefits: anything having to do with the hr aspects of your job or
  • IT & Other: this is where anything for the infrastructure that supports your job goes, IT, facilities, etc.
  • Personal: anything that comes to your work account but isn’t aligned with your job. Usually for me this is keeping up with professionals and faculty at other post-secondaries.
  • General Correspondence: same as personal but this time it actually does have to do with your job.
  • Service: I have two service folders one for internal (part of the org) service, and one for external (not part of the org). I then have a folder for my main professional org (CACUSS) under Service (ext).
  • Scholarship: create a sub folder for major research projects, but most of it can go here. The exception is if scholarship is a major part of your role. Then it will need lots of sub folders, one for each major project.

That takes care of all email that is outside your professional role/department. So the last folder is the one with the most subfolders.

Department Folder: The main folder will take anything that doesn’t fit in a sub folder or is a general departmental email. Key sub folders depend on your job. Then have one for any sub-group or community of practice within your department, and one for each of the major parts of your job. Mine has one for student bookings which holds booking requests until the meeting is done, and another for student appointment where I file all emails from students regarding their meetings or documents I’m helping them with. I also have ones for emails with employers, events, teaching, workshops, WIL, Experiential Learning, and curriculum and planning. I then have subfolders where I get a lot of email regarding a single thing, for example under events I have a folder for Job Fair.

It may seem like a lot of folders, but the key thing is that you should never have a folder that gets less than 10 emails a year. Try to keep them broad and focused on the key parts of your job.

Process

Now for the part people cared about, how to get to inbox zero.

Triage: Skim your email to see if there is anything that is drastically urgent. Anything that needs a response in the next 5 hours. Deal with those and file them

Fast or Unimportant emails: yep, that’s second, it’s because they don’t take lots of time. Start with anything you know will take only a few seconds, for me that’s sending a booking email for a student appointment. Then identify an email list or listserv and skim those emails, email list ones don’t get saved, they just get deleted unless they have something super important in it. Also in here is the auto responders you got either from people responding to meeting invites or out of offices. If there’s any meeting time adjustments this is when it should happen.

How I do this is I use the search function to bring up all the email from specific email addresses or that have a specific subject line. Once those emails are all taken care of you should be down by a lot.

Now you’ve got a mail box full of things that need time.

Read only emails: start skimming your email and focus on the ones that you don’t need to respond to. Read them and file them. If there is anything in them that you need to respond to, leave them till later unless the response will take less that 1 minute. If the emails spark anything put it in your to-do list. I use Outlook Tasks for that. Just create a quick task, later you can go through and categorize them or set due dates for them.

If you’re like me this should have you down to a much more manageable set of emails that now need replies.

The Main Course: For this I skim them from the newest to oldest, if there’s anything that’s super fast take care of that right away. When I get to the oldest email I start there and work my way back up. Remember, once an email is dealt with it gets filed.

Any email that will take more than 10 minutes to reply to gets skipped, so by the time you’re done this pass you should have only 10-30 emails that need substantial time. Depending on how much email you have, you may need to take a break before you delve into the substantial time emails.

Congrats, your inbox is now a to-do list.

Upkeep

To keep this up you need to set a few minutes aside each day. I have 1/2 an hour in the morning that is exclusively for me to go through my email and check in with co-workers. If you find you write the same advice to people a lot, look at using a pre-generated text. In Outlook I use Quick Parts for this. Finally if you’re using Gmail you get a huge advantage, it’s the snooze button. This lets you bump an email to a date where you think you can properly deal with it. I hear that outlook will get this soon, but mine doesn’t have it yet without using a plugin.

Final note: if you’re not using an electronic to-do list you should start. I’m a huge fan of them as it updates in multiple places so I can quickly go in and make any changes regardless of if I’m on my work computer or not. I hear that Microsoft is merging their outlook tasks and to-do list apps at some point, so it doesn’t matter which one you pick now, it will work. I’ve used a lot of different ones but now I’m using Outlook Tasks for work and MS To-Do for home, basically use whichever one ties into your email easiest.

Good luck, and enjoy inbox zero.