The truth about inbox zero: How e-mail processing is done

By johannatime On February 11, 2014 Under Productivity vs Procrastination


Is your inbox zero once daily? Does it only hold the e-mails you need to respond to? Or does it contain hundreds of messages? No matter how you organise your incoming mail, a clear inbox makes you more productive and by clearing your inbox you avoid overwhelm and procrastination. Let me explain how it works:

What e-mails really are (about)

Let’s for now ignore the messages you would ignore (and delete) in your inbox anyway, and jump straight to the ones that involve action from you. An e-mail is often communication about somebody else’s priorities, someone who needs action from you so they can get on with their work. If you’re lucky, an e-mail is about somebody’s work delivered to you, so you can meet your deadlines. However you look at it: an e-mail is communication, not an action!

Do you keep e-mails in your inbox to remind yourself of the actions that they imply?

Do you mark e-mails as ‘unread’, flag them or star them as an extra reminder that you need to get back to them?

Are there any messages in your inbox that have been there for over 48 hours?

If you answered yes to any of the above, please read on, because I have some tips for you to make your life a little less complicated.

How e-mail processing is done

E-mail processing is not about where to put an e-mail, it is all about making decisions about an e-mail. When you process, start with the most recent message and work your way through your inbox until all e-mails are done. One e-mail at a time, don’t skip one, don’t go cherry-picking.

1: How important is this e-mail? I can’t advise you what is important for you, that’s your call. But consider it’s value and importance before anything else. If it is not important, ignore and delete.

2: Should you do something about this in the next week or so? This decision is about actionability and you know how much time you’ve got, so be realistic and practical about this.

It is only after you made those decisions that you start putting your e-mails anywhere, and there are two places to store non-actionable important e-mails:

a) Your archives, when you trust you’ll only need that information when someone including yourself asks for it.

b) A someday/maybe folder or list, when something is far not actionable yet, or when you’d like a reminder about this message every now and again for reconsideraton, because if you would stick it in your archives, you would forget all about it. Don’t use ‘someday/maybe’ to just procrastinate on your decisions!

So that was about the non-actionables. If an e-mail is important and actionable, you’ll need to do some more decision making:

3: What is your desired outcome or result?

4: And what do you need to do first to get to that result?

When you are clear on your outcome and your first action, there are a maximum of four types of action reminders that can be involved with that e-mail. Often it is only one. But I advise you to analyse your e-mail and unravel it in such a way that all ‘actionables’ are filtered out and decided upon:

c) Next actions: these are clear commands to yourself about what exactly you are going to do. You need to see yourself doing and finishing the action, if not, you need to do more thinking.

d) Your calendar: is for actions that need to be done at a certain day and time. Meetings and deadlines and such. Don’t cram your calendar by scheduling actions that can also be done sooner or later.

e) Waiting for: sometimes you need to delegate things, and you need to wait for them to return to you so you can get on with work. They are outside of your direct control, so you don’t want them bothering you for as long as you can’t do anything to move them forward, however you don’t want to loose track of them either.

f) Projects: the things you have committed to and you are working on. You need these completed in the near future. Projects are not done by completing a single action, so you need reminders of them regularly. In fact, at any point in time, a project needs one of the above type ‘actionables’ done in order to move towards closure.

To keep track of your ‘actionables’, you make distinctive lists. You can often use your existing e-mail app (like Outlook) for task managing, or just use paper. There are many task managers out there that seamlessly sync with your e-mail anyway, like the one I use, IQTELL. To keep your lists fresh, review them regularly!

After you have done the thinking and processed the actions onto your lists, you can simply file (or trash) the e-mail, because you have translated the communication into actions for you to do. The e-mails are not the reminder of your commitments anymore, the items and actions on your lists are.

All this work for just one e-mail? What about the other 999 sitting there waiting to be processed?

Yes, you apply the exact same procedure for every e-mail, so it will become a routine quite easily, and it will not leave anything in your inbox! Don’t waste time on deciding how to process your inbox, just do it the same way all the time, and use your energy for sound decisions. In fact, you don’t only do this for e-mail, you do it for everything that comes your way, including your own ideas. Your reward is incredible:

  • No time wasted on re-reading and re-deciding actions
  • No energy wasted on procrastination
  • Clear view on what’s new
  • Flow and focus because you have far less distracions
  • Increased productivity
  • A calm mind

So what do you do to keep your inbox zero? Please share in the comments below:

Johanna Jansen


1 Trackback

  1. Habit of the month August: E-mail etiquette | Time Mine
    August 1, 2014 9:18 AM

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi there! I understand this is somewhat off-topic however I had to ask.
    Does running a well-established blog like yours take a lot
    of work? I’m completely new to running a blog but I do write in my diary
    everyday. I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and thoughts
    online. Please let me know if you have any recommendations
    or tips for new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

    • johannatime
      April 17, 2014
      10:34 pm #comment-2

      Hi [what’s your name?],

      Depending on your personal ambition, anything that is done with consistancy can be a lot of work, but it is rewarding and satisfying, too. By sharing your diary with potentially anyone, you are likely to set higher standards for your writing than when it was ‘just’ your personal diary. I can recommend making writing into a routine, and write regularly and frequently. You will find that the more you write, the more there is to write about. If it is not your full time job, however, keep it simple: better write monthly for a year or two, than daily for a month or so and then give up.

      Good luck!

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