Concept of ‘Inbox Zero’
A number of us check email too frequently, retain too many unread emails in our inboxes or set aside emails without processing them completely, and, habitually organize our work around our email inboxes.
Merlin emphasizes that one of the most important soft-skills a knowledge worker could possess is the ability to productively process a high volume of email. He advocates effectively handling email by implementing and maintaining a system whereby, regardless of the sender or the content, you could process all incoming email by choosing one of the actions described below.
‘Process to Zero’
The core idea behind Merlin’s system of productivity with emails is the practice of maintaining a blank inbox by processing all emails each time you check email. “You never check your email without processing to zero.”
Merlin advocates checking two or three times a day and processing every email through one of these actions: deleting or archiving, delegating, responding, deferring or just ‘doing.’
Here is a system that I personalized and have practiced for the last two years or so.
- Delete: Many emails that you receive are intended to update or inform you of some development. Or, they could be about commercial promotions, reminders or automatic notifications of certain events in our organization. Immediately delete these and all other emails of questionable value.
- Archive: If you need to store an incoming email for future reference, move it to an appropriate folder. Develop an organization scheme that works best for you. For instance, you may create a system of folders based on projects you are responsible for; each folder could then store emails related to its project.
Note to Gmail users: Gmail does not support the concept of folders. Instead try the system of labels. See this FAQ.
- Respond Immediately: If you can act on an incoming email in a minute or two, act on the email immediately. If you need to respond, compose and send a response immediately.
- Defer: If you cannot act on an email in a minute or two, hit the ‘Reply’ button to start responding to the email and then save a draft of the reply for future action. Then, delete the original (incoming) email or move it to an appropriate folder. Add the task to your to-do list. When you have completed the task and have all the information necessary to respond, resume composing the draft email and send the email. Your ‘Draft’ folder thus supplements to your to-do list. If appropriate, reserve an hour or two each afternoon to collect information, complete all such tasks and clear your ‘Draft’ folder.
- Delegate: If another person could best act on an incoming email, forward the message. If you would like to track the delegatee’s response, record an action item in your to-do list or calendar. Then, delete the incoming email or move it to an appropriate folder.
- Turn off the ‘notify me when new mail arrives‘ feature on your email software to avoid interruptions and help you focus on your work outside of email.
- Do not open email until later in the morning. A majority of us tend to be more productive earlier in the day. Hence, use your mornings to focus on your more-important responsibilities and priority tasks.
- Check email twice or thrice a day only, or more frequently depending on nature of your job. Process to zero and close your email software when done checking email.
- By the end of each day, target to clear all your incoming mails and try to maintain a zero inbox.
Evaluate the ‘Zero Inbox‘ and ‘Process to Zero‘ practices and customize these ideas to suit your particular circumstances. Implementing and maintaining a system of productive email practice can help you feel better organize your responsibilities and tasks.