Nobody gets trained on how to use their email effectively. I mean, there are videos out there and classes, but when you signed up foryour email account, nobody sat you down and taught you how to set it up and use effectively. So how can your email be the key to your peaceful productivity breakthrough?
Today’s world is still all about email. Even with Slack, Asana, Quip, etc. The reality is, we all still have email accounts and most of us are drowning in email.
And that’s personal. We judge ourselves for it. We feel out of control. The reality is that your INBOX is out of control, but it feels like YOU are. One of my clients characterized her old email life this way:
“I was a scroll monster. It was a constant scroll to find something. Constantly searching for what I needed. I would forget to respond to people and overlook important stuff because the important stuff was all mixed in with everything else.”
It reminds me of something I would always hear Peter Walsh say on when he was on Clean Sweep: When everything is important, nothing is important.
And that’s the problem, with these overflowing inboxes. Everything has been kept, even the unimportant stuff, so it’s hard to find what you really need.
Imagine if your email inbox was to suddenly print itself into your workspace or home. What if everytime you opened the door to your office you were confronted by these printed emails. Thousands and thousands of pages.
You want to follow up with that client on the meeting you are trying to schedule with them, so you start leafing through all the pages until youcan find what you are looking for. It was a communication within the past few days so it should be at the top of the pile somewhere, right?
Our emails are digital clutter and it causes stress, just like physical clutter does for most people.
I like how Joshua Becker of BecomingMinimalist.com talks about it,
“Perhaps your digital clutter causes a loss in time, handicaps your productivity, increases stress, or contributes to distractedness in your physical life. Much like the garage, we have to ask ourselves when it’s time to declutter those items on our desktop, delete needless emails, or reduce our digital footprint.”
So, how do you unclutter your inbox? More than that, how do you get to a point where you can get your inbox to ZERO at least once per week?
I’m going to share the process I use with my coaching clients.
The scroll monster client above? Here’s what she said after she started getting her inbox to zero on the regular:
“It makes me notice that I’m more on top of things than I realized. I always felt like I had too much to do because my inbox was so full. Now, things feel more managed. I thought I was bad at follow up. It’s just that I was overwhelmed.”
And before you stop reading because you feel like this is an insurmountable task, because you have thousands of emails in your inbox, I challenge you to keep reading.
The client I mentioned above had over 6,000 emails in her inboxes. She was embarrassed to show me her inbox, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many we start with, what matters is how many we end up with. And that number is ZERO…in case you haven’t been following along.
In fact, starting out with a ton of emails is great. It gives you a realistic picture of the kinds of emails you receive which will allow you to set up a better email productivity system that is more aligned to YOUR life and work.
So why the “peaceful productivity breakthrough” headline? I’ve watched my clients shift when they get a handle on making their inboxes more productive. In tackling that ONE part of their world, they end up creating a system that can help them be more productive and present in all aspects of their life.
So, let’s get started on YOUR breakthrough. Here are 5 Steps to get YOU to Inbox ZERO.
First, a couple tips:
Set aside 2-3 hours to do this. My former scroll monster accomplished her first inbox zero on her couch watching a couple episodes of the voice. Are you willing to commit to a couple of hours NOW to achieve weekly freedom FOREVER? I think you are.
- Start with your primary email inbox…the one with the most important stuff in it.
Now seriously, let’s do this.
Step 1: Archive
This first step can be the easiest and has the most impact. Ready?
I hereby grant you permission to archive anything prior to this calendar year or anything older than 3-6 months. Seriously. If you haven’t needed it in the past 3-6 months, you don’t need it in your inbox.
So how do you actually do this? Create a folder in your email called:
zArchive Prior to <<Insert Date>>
Select every email that is that date or older and drag it/move it into the archive folder you created.
For most people, this will be thousands of emails immediately removed from their inbox. And it saves you HOURS of making decisions about each email while still allowing you to find an email later if you need it.
Or as my scroll monster put it,
“Permission to archive was a big deal to me. I was afraid I’d have to go through all 6,000+ emails to figure out what to delete. And I was scared to delete things that were old just in case I needed them again. So tossing all the old emails into an “Archive” folder alleviated a lot of my stress AND took care of thousands of emails.”
Boom. Progress. (Wait. Did you get stuck on step 1? Maybe you need a little help.)
No problem with step 1? Move along…
Step 2: Unsubscribe and Delete
What’s left after step one is still a mix of important stuff, actionable stuff and just stuff. So it’s time to ditch the stuff that isn’t serving you AND keep it from hitting your inbox again.
You know what I’m talking about don’t you? The weekly emails you get from that online company you bought ONE thing from last year. Daily emails from that guru that you don’t even like anymore. The monthly sales emails from the car dealership…and you sold that car two years ago.
Be ruthless about this. If you don’t love it, leave it. Unsubscribe. If you don’t read the regular emails automatically delivered to you from businesses and salespeople, click that magical “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of their email. You can always resubscribe if you miss hearing from them. Or, better yet, just follow them on your favorite social media channel.
Once you click that magical “unsubscribe” link that should be at the bottom of their emails, delete all the emails they’ve sent you.
There are tools out there that can help you unsubscribe from a ton of lists very quickly, but beware of what they might do with your data. Unroll.me is a great tool that unfortunately sold user data to other companies.
CNET wrote a great article about this as well as a tip on another great way to identify possible unsubscribe candidates:
A tried and true method is to open Gmail and search for “unsubscribe.” When searching for this term, if you open an email, unsubscribe will be highlighted, so it’s easier to find.
And remember, after you unsubscribe, delete the emails from the sender.
This unsubscribe stuff is a boundaries thing. You get to decide who you let into your inbox.
If you don’t want what they are offering, let them go.
If what they are saying no longer resonates with you, let them go.
“But what if I like some of what they saying?” If they aren’t hitting the nail on the head for you 80% of the time, unsubscribe. You can always subscribe again if you really miss having them clutter up your inbox.
Completing this step should free you of hundreds more emails not to mention what it will do to prevent so many from coming in moving forward. As scroll monster said,
“Unsubscribe reduced the bombardment on a daily basis. So it just made it easier to keep things under control.”
Step 3: Clarify
OK, you are now down to the emails that you need to consider. And this is how email inboxes grow to hundreds and thousands of emails. We don’t take the time to consider what each email actually is really about…which keeps us from making a decision what what to do with the email…which keeps it in your inbox.
I’m just gonna say it.
Your overflowing inbox is the symptom. Procrastination is the disease. Harsh, I know. But that email is still in their because you put off making a decision about it.
The good news is that you can ask yourself two simple questions about each of the remaining emails that will help you get clear on what remains and will help you prioritize them.
The 2 Powerful Questions
- What is it?
- Is it actionable?
These questions come from productivity guru David Allen. He uses these questions to create clarity around anything that is in his inbox, laying around the house or rolling around his noggin.
Question 1: What is it?
That first question may seem silly, but you’d be surprised at how much clarity it creates when you answer it as if you were explaining it to someone else.
Question 2: Is it actionable?
When the answer to “Is it actionable?” is “No” you either trash the email or file it away.
What if the answer to “Is it actionable?” is “yes”?
If the email is actionable, you would either do it, delegate it or defer it.
- If it would take 2 minutes or less to take care what’s actionable, do it and then file or delete the email.
- If the action required belongs to someone else delegate it to that person and file the email away and set yourself a reminder to follow up on it at the appropriate time.
- If the action required must be done by you and it’s going to take more than 2 minutes to complete it you’ll defer it. This means you’ll put the action required on a task list and then file the email from your inbox into a folder that makes sense to you.
Whether the answer to “Is it actionable?” is “yes” or “no”, you will still get to the point of moving the email out of your inbox. Any action required will get added to your task list or calendar. The email itself will either get deleted or filed away for later reference or use.
I’m just gonna say it, this is often the hardest step for people. If you need some hands on help, just click here.
Step 4: House it
All that clarifying that you did in Step 3 will have helped you uncover a bunch of categories of emails. So Step 4 is all about creating homes for all of the categories of emails you uncovered.
And by “homes” I mean folders. And subfolders if that helps. You are essentially creating an organization system for all the kinds of emails you receive.
Don’t get freaked out by the word “organization”. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your personality style is, we all are capable of being organized. Consider this definition from David Allen:
“Being organized means simply that where something is matches what it means to you.”
To YOU. Not to me. Not to productivity gurus. To you.
This is YOUR system. Keep it as simple as possible and only as complex as is absolutely necessary.
In other words, you shouldn’t have subfolder upon subfolder within your email program. The point is to get things out of your inbox and into meaningful places to YOU. So keep the folder structure simple because you can always use your email program’s search feature to track down exactly what you are looking for.
Do you want a SUPER simple folder structure for your email? This structure would totally work. I said to keep it simple, right?
At this point you should have your inbox to ZERO.
If you haven’t, go back to the CLARIFY and HOUSE IT steps until you get there.
Still having a hard time? You may need more help.
Step 5: Repeat
Guess what. Steps 1-4 was all the heavy lifting. You got your inbox to ZERO. Now it’s time for the simplest, yet often most difficult step.
Step 5 is all about repeating steps 2-4 as often as necessary to maintain your feeling of control over your email.
For some people, “as often as necessary” might be every hour. For others it might be daily or weekly.
Hourly would probably be too frequently. It would give your inbox a lot of control over you.
Personally, I like to get to inbox ZERO weekly. Start there and see how it goes. Pick a day of the week on which you’ll go through Steps 1-4 and get all of your inboxes to ZERO.
For a lot of people I work with, the best time to do this is late morning on the last working day of the week. It gives them time to follow up on things before they wrap up everything for the week.
The nice thing about getting to inbox ZERO weekly is that it allows your week to get messy. Because life is just that sometimes, messy. It allows things to get a little out of control, which is ok because you KNOW that by the end of the week, you’ll get things back to good.
Make this an appointment on your calendar and honor it. Mine is set for 9:30am every Friday. I get all my inboxes to zero, get my desk cleared off and update my projects and tasks lists (among other things). This time on Fridays is a critical part of the work+life productivity system I have built for myself.
That’s it. Those are the 5 steps.
It can be easy to unintentionally create a life of stress and email can be a major contributor to that. However, you don’t always have as much to DO as it sometimes feels like you do. You just don’t have a system to manage it all, which leads to the overwhelm feeling.
Getting to inbox ZERO isn’t about DOING all of things you need to do. It’s about understanding what’s on your plate and deciding what you want to be spending your time and energy on.
Let’s hear one last time from Scroll Monster:
“This is something I didn’t know I needed and now that I have it, I can’t believe I was operating how I was operating before. For 10 years of my career I was somehow functioning like this. And now, life and work feel so much more manageable.”
It just takes 5 steps to create this feeling for yourself.
- Toss all emails that are 3-6 months old into an ARCHIVE folder
- Say bye-bye to the stuff that clutters your inbox by UNSUBSCRIBING and DELETING marketing emails you don’t want, newsletters you don’t read, etc
- Take time to CLARIFY what remains by figuring out what action is required and adding that to your task list
- Once you know what the action is for an email and add that to your task list you can HOUSE IT by putting it into a folder for future reference
- Create time in your life to regularly repeat these steps so you can get your inbox to ZERO at least once per week
If you follow these 5 Steps to Inbox ZERO you can be just like my client formerly known as Scroll Monster and have YOUR life and work feel more manageable. YOU will have the peaceful productivity feeling.