Dig Out of the Email Avalanche and Achieve Inbox Zero

By on October 22, 2019
Hands on the keyboard of an open laptop with email displayed

By the end of 2019, email experts report that the average professional will send and receive 126 emails per day. If each email occupies just one minute of your time, that would mean you’re spending around 26% of your work day sending or receiving emails. If you work a 40-hour workweek, you’re probably living in your inbox more than 10 hours a week.

Are you nervously laughing because you can relate? Or are you quietly crying because your email situation is worse?

Email excess is a real problem, and it stands in the way of our well-being at work. It’s unrealistic to think you can be productive while managing the constant interruptions, lengthy inquiries and the barrage of carbon copies in which you’re included.

Several theories exist as to how you can dig your way out of the email avalanche, and one of the more popular approaches was developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann. Referred to as “inbox zero,” Mann’s approach is to keep the amount of time your brain is in your inbox to as close to zero as possible. The aim is to maximize your time, stay focused on what you need to be doing to be most productive, and keep the inbox empty or as close to empty as possible at all times.

When Mann introduced the inbox zero approach in his 2007 Google Tech Talk, he outlined several actions email users can take to take control of their email problems. This list has been modernized to include some concepts that have surfaced over the last several years that can help email users become unburied.

Set time constraints around checking email

You’re setting yourself up for failure when you leave your email open all day while you try to multitask. It’s the equivalent of having someone come into your office and interrupt your thoughts 26% of your day.

Instead of reading emails immediately as they come in, set up a regular time to check email and stick with it. For example, decide that you will only read your emails in the morning, right after lunch, and before you head home for the day. Make a commitment to the plan, and then close your email to remove temptation so you can get some actual work done. If you need to keep it open, at a minimum, turn off notifications (sound and pop-ups). It will be worth it.

Make quick decisions

In his introduction to the inbox zero approach, Mann outlined five actions to take for each email message: delete, delegate, respond, defer and do.

Try to read each email only once and take quick action. When you first review your emails, delete or archive as many as possible. It will give you a quicker sense of accomplishment and keep you motivated to keep chugging through the list. Delegate what rightfully belongs in someone else’s inbox by forwarding an email along, if appropriate. Respond immediately to any emails that can be addressed quickly—Mann suggests within two minutes or less. If a response to an email might take longer than the time you have, defer your response by placing the email in a “requires response” folder or tag it and set a time to address it later. When the time is right, do what you need to do to address your emails and get your inbox back into a manageable state.

Organize your emails

It used to be that one of the best ways to organize your emails was to create folders under your inbox and move the messages to the appropriate folder. This approach still works, and if that is the way you like to stay organized, by all means, have at it.

As an alternative, most modern email clients now have tagging features that allow you to organize your emails categorically so you don’t have to spend time moving them to folders. Or, you can make great use of the search function within your email client to identify your email.

There are many organizational methods available. The point is: pick an approach and stick with it.

Set an email agreement with your colleagues

If your experience is anything like mine, then there’s a good chance that the majority of your email comes from the same group of people most of the time. There’s also a good chance that these people don’t want to become buried by email just as much as you don’t.

Take the time to discuss with your colleagues what the appropriate method of communication is for each type of communication, and agree to keep email length and frequency to a minimum.

Respect your email recipients by considering who really needs to see your message. Don’t indiscriminately hit the “reply to all” button or copy too many people on trivial messages.

When you send an email to a group of people, put the recipients in the “bcc” field to prevent them from hitting “reply all” and adding to the email pile. If you want to show who was on the list, you can always put their names in the body of the email.

Use alternate methods of communication

What’s the absolute best way to keep your inbox as close to zero as possible? Don’t use it as much!

Instead of using email, commit to a daily 10-minute meeting or phone call with your main email correspondents. Cover all non-urgent items that you might otherwise have put in an email. You’ll be amazed at how many emails you can preempt.

There are also a multitude of newer communication tools available to facilitate collaboration among teams in a less intrusive manner. I’ve personally experienced success with software like Slack, Basecamp and Teamwork. These tools have the added benefit of fostering communication alongside project management functions like task assignment, project timelines and more – all in one place.

Email overload is a major issue that plagues the modern workplace. Fortunately, there are steps you can take today to take control of your email, maximize your productivity and improve your overall well-being at work.

Are you and your organization suffering from email mismanagement? We have productivity experts who can help. Check out our business solutions and custom training services and contact us for more information.

About Rebecca Rutherford

Rebecca Rutherford is Marketing Communications Coordinator of St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group, which delivers non-credit continuing education opportunities, corporate training and community services to the St. Louis region.

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