Everyone who’s in the business of improving productivity has an opinion on Inbox Zero. The original concept was created by Merlin Mann and went viral after he shared it in a Google TechTalk (which you can still watch on YouTube).

An idea taken too far.

In essence, the idea was to minimise the amount of time you waste “managing” e-mail, and not literally to reduce the number of items in your inbox to zero. Unfortunately, this latter interpretation has gained the most traction and spawned an army of productivity gurus who will try to convince you that the only good inbox is an empty inbox. I personally find the amount of time I need to invest in clearing down my inbox regularly outweighs the claimed benefits.

On the other hand, we have people whose inbox management system consists of marking messages as unread to indicate that the message is not yet been actioned, or to remind them to look at the message later. This approach is arguably worse because you waste time reading these messages at twice, if not more, before doing anything with them.

For me, the happy medium is to have a system that allows me to keep track of what I need to do while at the same time spending as little time as possible wrangling e-mail – here’s how I do it.

Put email back in its place.

One of the worst ways that e-mail impacts productivity is by interrupting your flow of work. Any interruption that breaks your concentration takes several minutes to fully recover from. In fact, some research suggests that it may take as long as half an hour to get back to a focused state of mind. This doesn’t resonate with me personally, but I guess that it depends on the type of job you do. Either way, that unread e-mail can wait.

Instead of having email open all day and treating each incoming message as a “drop everything” task, you can do the following. Minimise your email, turn off pop-up notifications and set aside some time slots in your calendar during which your only task is processing e-mail. I use 15-minute slots, you may wish to spend more or less time, depending on how much e-mail you get. I schedule these slots for first thing in the morning, just before lunch, when I get back from lunch, and at the end of the day. Whatever e-mail isn’t processed in that time (apart from obvious messages marked as important) can wait until the next e-mail processing time slot.

Processing

My e-mail process is straightforward. I read each message and then decide if any additional action is required.

  • Spam and redundant notifications go straight to the bin.
  • Where needed, and if possible, I reply immediately.
  • If I need to set up a meeting to discuss the contents of the message I try to do that immediately as well.
  • If it isn’t possible to action the message (reply or meeting), e.g.: additional research is required or I need input from a colleague, then I flag the message.
  • If there’s still time in an e-mail processing slot after I have read all the new messages, and either actioned and/or flagged them, I go back to the flagged messages and process these.

You may already have a similar approach to processing e-mail, but the key point is that I’m not marking messages as unread or dragging them into folders to try to stay “organised”.

Forget folders.

“But if you don’t have folders, how can you find anything?” I hear you cry. Unless your job role specifically requires folders to support a third-party app or process, I would suggest that creating folders and filing e-mail away is a waste of time.

In my experience, most people use folders to be able to find emails at some future point in time. However, with the excellent search features in many modern e-mail systems (e.g.: Microsoft Outlook), you can easily find e-mail and attachments through straightforward keyword search. I’ve used this approach in my last few jobs and even where I’ve had a mailbox with over 20,000 items, I’ve never “lost” an e-mail.

A common objection I hear to this approach is that people will say they can’t remember the subject line of an e-mail or the name of a file that was attached to an e-mail. Outlook search (I can’t speak for other e-mail apps), is able to find messages and files as long as the keyword is in the message body or file contents, you do not need to know the name of the file.

Remember IM

Another way to reduce the time wasted processing email is to send (and hopefully receive) less of the stuff. Instant Messaging apps like Teams can help reduce the load by giving you an alternative platform on which to send messages. Of course, Teams cause the same focus-breaking issues as email if not used properly, which is why a change management plan that includes sharing communications best practise, and provides opportunities to learn how the product works, are essential in creating a better way of working.

Please contact us for more information about how Transparity can help your organisation adopt these ways of working.

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Inbox Zero – Friend or Foe?

We discuss the controversial topic of Inbox Zero and offer some helpful tips for staying on top of your inbox without it ruling your day.

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