Think that shiny new messaging platforms and teamwork software are killing workplace email? They may…someday. But the reality is that email is still very alive and well. And it’s still an integral part of the workflow of many small business owners and employees.
In Adobe’s most recent email usage study, it found that the average person spends five hours per day checking email. Three of those hours are spent on work email and the other two on personal email. Yes, those numbers are a decline from previous years. But the fact remains that most of us are still spending large portions of our day inside our inboxes.
And so the goal of achieving zero, that nirvana of email efficiency and time management, is still a worthy one that could significantly improve your workplace productivity. In this guide, we’ll discuss some practical ways to minimize the amount of time that your email requires of you and relieve your email stress.
7 Strategies For Achieving Inbox Zero
I have an intimate understanding of how consuming email can become. My job is 100% remote. And I have to work each week with multiple editors, most of whom primarily communicate through email.
Early in my career as a writer, the stress of an unread email in my inbox about a writing project would make it nearly impossible to focus on the article I was supposed to be writing at the moment. I checked my email far too often. And my productivity suffered as a result.
Learning how to better manage email usage has played a critical role in my own success as a solopreneur. So from that place of experience, here are seven strategies to achieving inbox zero that I recommend giving a try.
1. Understand That “Inbox Zero” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Zero Emails”
Here’s a surprising revelation for you. When Merlin Mann coined the “Inbox Zero” term and unveiled its accompanying time management model, he never intended for anyone to actually obsess about having zero messages inside their inbox at all times.
The “zero” in his Inbox Zero mantra referred to the amount of brain space that we devote to our email inbox. Check out this direct quote from Mann in which he defines what Inbox Zero really means:
“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”
So the ultimate goal is to organize and respond to your messages in a way that allows you to spend less brain power each day on email. And, as your email occupies less of your time and energy, it allows you to become more efficient and productive at all the other work that you’re responsible for.
2. Set Specific Times Each Day to Check Your Email
Many people think that they’re email masters because they keep their email tab open at all times so that they can immediately see when an email comes in. When one does, they stop what they’re doing, respond to the email right then, and then get back to what they were doing before.
In some sense, this method of email management may seem incredibly responsible. Everyone who emails you sees that you respond within minutes and the numbers of messages in your inbox that require a response is basically always nil.
And if your only job was to respond to emails, that would be a great way to handle your inbox management. But, for most of us, responding to email is not the top task on our job descriptions.
And study after study has found that when we divert our attention away from any task, it takes a while for us to get back into the mental groove. Check out this video about the myth of multi-tasking.
Once you start to pick up mental steam on a task, it gets grounded to a halt by another email response. This herky-jerky way of doing work has been proven again and again to be efficient…in addition to exhausting and stressful.
Instead, set specific times to check your email throughout the day. For some people, they can get by with checking it three times — morning, mid-day, and end-of-day. For others, they feel like they need to check their email at the top of every hour.
Regardless of how often you decide to check your email, close that email tab when you’re done. And don’t open it again until your next scheduled email-checking session.
3. Send Concise Email Messages
Most emails can be responded to with less than five sentences. There was actually a whole movement around this idea.
You can check out this Entrepreneur article that explains the five-sentence email and its usefulness towards achieving inbox zero in great detail.
The basic idea is that you want to cut out unnecessary details in all of your responses. And the goal is to be able to respond to (or delegate) 90% of your emails in two minutes or less.
Composing these types of emails will accomplish two things. First, you’ll obviously be able to knock out your responses faster. But, second, your emails will be more focused, which will help the receiver more quickly identify the information that they need.
So stop thinking of your emails like pen pal letters and start thinking of them more like tweets. Make your point and make it quickly. And save all those analogies and personal stories for your team’s Christmas party.
3. Block Off Time Each Day For Longer Email Responses
While the vast majority of your emails can be delegated or responded to in less than two minutes, there will always be the rare email or two that require more in-depth responses. Trying to switch gears to pound out these long, thought-out responses in the middle of all your other tasks can be difficult.
Instead of trying to respond to these during every email-checking session, my suggestion would be to handle these once per day. In my case, I set aside about 20 minutes at the end of each workday to handle these. In your case, the quiet hours of the morning may be when you’re best able to collect your thoughts for these types of emails.
What typically doesn’t work for these kinds of emails is planning to respond to them right in the middle of your workday (like noon). The potential for interruptions is just too high. And you’re likely to be in a tactical brain space rather than an introspective space. So plan those long emails for the beginning or end of your workday and then block them out at all other times.
4. Snooze Emails That You Can’t Answer Today
Most emails fall into one of four categories:
- Respond now
- Respond later
“Respond later” emails are ones that you simply can’t respond to today, due to lack of the information that your response will require or for some other reason.
It’s these emails that can really stress us out and keep us from achieving inbox zero. Over time, our inboxes can overflow with emails that we’re holding onto until a later date.
But many email providers now have a “snooze” function that can be a great way of handling our “respond later” emails. When you “Snooze” an email, it disappears from your inbox completely. But then it will reappear at the top of your inbox at a specific date and time. Here’s how it works on Gmail.
Check to see if our email provider has a built-in snooze feature. If not, there’s probably a third-party add-on that can quickly add this functionality to your inbox.
5. Try Gmail’s Multiple Inbox Strategy
If you use Gmail then you have access to what Gmail calls “Multiple Inbox”. It’s a bit of a misnomer though because turning this one doesn’t give you more than one inbox, it allows you to create subcategories for your emails that move them out of your main email feed but still keep them on your screen. It looks like this:
As you can see, it changes the look of Gmail a bit so that you have your main inbox on the left half of the screen and “multiple inboxes” on the right. You can name those inboxes anything you wish and you categorize emails with the different stars.
In this example, the first inbox is labeled with a red star. If an email comes in that belongs in that inbox you can star it with the appropriate icon and it will automatically appear in that inbox.
Note: emails will still appear in your main inbox as well. If you archive the email it will disappear from the main inbox but remain in the categorized inbox.
This allows you to put emails aside and still have them visible in your inbox. It also allows you to batch emails. Let’s say you have them organized by client. You could sit down and process all the emails for that one client in a batch. Rather than switching back and forth.
You could also organize them by action required. You could use categories such as “needs response”, “waiting on reply”, and “information”. That way you have the emails you need, but they aren’t cluttering your actual inbox.
You can set this up in Gmail under “Settings” – “Inbox” then choose “Multiple Inboxes” in the dropdown menu. You’ll then name your inboxes and set up the “search query” which is how Gmail knows what emails to put where.
It looks like this:
6. Create Email Templates
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. The idea, of course, is to stop typing out the same messages over and over again.
Virtually every email provider makes it easy to save templates of the emails that you send most often. Here’s how to create an email template in Outlook.
And here’s a video that explains how to create and save templates in Gmail.
When using templates, you can still make minor changes to personalize them to each recipient. But with the click of a button, you can instantly save 90% of the time it would normally take to compose similar messages to multiple people.
Related: How To Stay Organized At Work
For many of us, 75% of the emails we receive each day are marketing emails. Our inboxes quickly fill to the brim with emails from marketers we don’t know pushing products we don’t care about.
You might think that these types of emails aren’t really keeping you from achieving inbox zero since you just delete them anyway. But even the process of having to skim each email to make sure that it truly belongs in the “delete” pile takes time and diverts our attention.
You can cut out a ton of this clutter by unsubscribing. Take about 30 minutes today to unsubscribe from all the email newsletters that you never read. Or you can use a service like Unroll.me or Clean Email to handle all the unsubscribing for you.
If there are certain stores and restaurants that you’d like to stay on their email list (but don’t necessarily want their emails cluttering up your main inbox), you can create “Rules” to move them automatically to a “Promotions” folder.
Or, if you use Gmail, its default inbox view will sort your emails into three inbox tabs (Primary, Social, and Promotions) so you don’t have to see all your emails at once when you log in.
8. Only Receive Phone Notifications For Your Important Emails
It won’t do you any good to close the email tab on your computer if your phone still dings every time an email comes through. One way to avoid this would, of course, be to just turn off mobile notifications altogether.
However, if there are certain email types or senders that you always want to be notified about immediately, you can train your inbox to only send notifications for these messages.
If you use Gmail, you can turn on “Priority” inbox or tell it that you only want to be notified when you receive “Important” messages or messages marked with a star.
Or, if you want to get super granular, you can even set up custom filters for specific senders or keywords. Learn more about how to customize your email phone notifications.
Wrapping It Up
Achieving inbox zero forces your email to serve you instead of the other way around. By choosing to be more strategic about when you check email and how you respond, you can take back control. And you can kick email overload to the curb.
Looking for more time management tips? Check out these 7 ideas to help you stop wasting time at work.