Getting to inbox zero

UPDATE (1/15): Technology has improved a lot (as well as awareness) of the problem of email volume. Also, Mailbox came along and made things much easier. I process, archive, or snooze every email in my inbox every time I open it. It helps me always get to zero and always have a record of the most important things. I now use the following all together to keep my projects organized:

  • Mailbox – to triage my inbox
  • Wunderlist – for tracking family & long range goals
  • GitHub – for tracking bugs & code
  • Google Docs – for tracking epics
  • Loose sheets of Paper – for tracking today’s to-dos

ORIGINAL: Managing the inbound flow of emails has become a daily chore for every connected professional.

It’s like exercise.  This is nothing you haven’t already heard.  Getting our inbox to zero is something we all know we should be doing, in an ideal world, along with eating fruits and vegetables and remembering to back up our hard drive.  But like those other guilt-inducers, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

The breaking point.  For me, inbox craziness reached a crescendo during my MBA program, when I received 100-150 emails per day, 30 of which were actionable, and 15 of which were time-sensitive.  Because I was running a business while doing two degrees, the penalty of getting even one day behind on my inbox often meant the difference between getting into or missing out on an opportunity.  The frustrating thing about this is that those truly important emails get lost in wave after wave of updates, reply alls, spammy notifications, etc.  And it never seems to let up…

The challenge.  Why is it so difficult to actually empty out that inbox?   There are the obvious reasons:  we are busy, we get too many emails, some aren’t urgent, etc…

But the key challenge for me has always been this:  the emails that hang around in my inbox, clogging everything else up, are always the ones that I can’t answer immediately…I’m either waiting for a response from a colleague, or I need to think about what to do, or I won’t know until I get home and ask family about timing, etc.  So what do we do about those emails?  For me, they used to just linger…

The existing tools.  I tried all of the usual tricks…add a “star” to the email, add a “label” to the label, mark as “unread”, etc.  But each of those solutions had a shortcoming…I’d end up with a pileup of unsorted emails with stars, all of which are still pending, but which I have to scan, in its entirety, and decide, on the fly, which ones are most important to do.

Why bother?  What’s wrong with just giving up and never zeroing out our inbox?  The main issue is that the inbox is a terrible organizer of actions to take.  It isn’t sorted based on priority, but rather, based on chronology and who is the most vocal sender.  So it’s an extremely noisy tool to use as a task manager.  Emails come in when they come…but what are the key action items to take…today?  They almost never mirror what’s at the top of my inbox.  I needed a way to process my inbound emails, clear out my inbox, and then go on with my day…working on those things that are most important for me to accomplish.

The Solution:  Email Triage…quickly whittle down the mess of messages, identifying the most critical items as quickly as possible…

(1) If I can delete it.  I delete it.  This usually eliminates 1/2 of my emails right off the bat.

(2) If I can “spam” it or “unsubscribe”, I do it.  That way, the offending email won’t bite me again.

(3) If I can solve it in less than 2 minutes, I solve it.  Knock out the quickie response, add the event to my calendar, etc.  Done.

Okay, yeah, obviously.  Then what?   This usually gets me down to the final handful of actionable emails for which there is no quickie response.  However, these are not yet sorted by priority!   So where does this final, and most important step in the triage process take place?  In my task manager…

(1) – this is the tool that allows me, for the first time ever, to follow the golden rules above, always be able to zero out my inbox, never lose track of what I need to do, and most importantly, know what is my biggest priority at any point in time.  (A special thanks to Emrecan Dogan for clueing me into this tool and how to use it.)

Task manager, RememberTheMilk

How does this work?  It’s really simple actually.  It’s a straightforward task manager, that lets you add a task, assign a priority to it, assign a deadline to it, and place it into a category.

What’s so special about it?

1. Seamless Syncing – First, it is easy to access on both my mobile devices (iPhone & iPad), as well as my browser.  This is oh-so-crucial.  For me, the absolutely most gratifying time to have this tool as part of my get-stuff-done suite is when I’m stuck somewhere with 5 minutes of dead time…you know, in line at the DMV, waiting for an airplane, waiting for the previews at a movie theater, etc.

Those are the moments in life that used to drive me bonkers, sitting there as valuable moments in life waste away because I’m just waiting for something to happen.  Now, those moments turn to joy, as I whip out RTM on my iDevice, look at my priority-ranked list of critical action items…and bang them out.  Item one done?  One-click to mark it as complete.  Item three done?  Mark that complete, as well.  Back at the office later that day?  My successes earlier in the day are automatically synced and reflected on RTM, whether I’m looking at it on my laptop browser, on my iPhone, etc.  Cross it out on the iPhone, it’s automatically removed everywhere.

2. Ease of Use – Second, it is super fast & easy to add, modify, and delete tasks.  Want to make it “top priority”, just type !1 at the end of the message.  Want it to be due tomorrow, just type “, tomorrow” at the end of the task.  Want to sort by priority, that’s easy.  Want to edit the task?  That’s one click away.  This may seem like a small detail, but for me, it’s a deal-breaker.  I’ve tried other task managers that require maybe two extra clicks to do every little modification…and when you’re relying on this thing to handle all inbound & outbound activities, those little clicks add up.  Having a tool that’s super easy to use makes all the difference.

So here’s the key – with a task manager like this in place, all you have to do is take all of those unread emails that would otherwise linger in your inbox.  You turn those INTO an action in your task manager.  And then get rid of them from your inbox.  They may not be done…but they are out of the way.  They’re not lost, but rather, stored where they belong, and prioritized as they should be.  As a result, your inbox is clear, so that you won’t miss that next, important email.  Now, your task manager, and NOT your inbox, tells you what to do & when…

Clear Inbox => Peaceful Mind

Peace of mind.  I’ve found this combination of tools and this methodology to make all the difference in the world…in keeping me organized, in keeping my inbox clear, and in feeling confident that what I’m working on right now is the most important thing for me to be doing.

There are probably other task managing tools that sync effortlessly across your devices & are quick and easy to use…but if you don’t already have one you love, then I definitely suggest trying one out…once you get into the flow of zeroing out that inbox and relying on a useful, portable task manager, fewer emails will slip through & you’ll feel a lot better about that inbox.

This is one of a handful of tools that I use to handle the daily inbox challenge…hopefully it’s useful to you.  Let me know in the comments if you have any other cool tricks like this….  More to come soon…