Ultimate Productivity Tool: Zero Inbox

tl;dr   Deal with your email quickly 

What is more upsetting? Overflowing inbox with missed deadlines, little fires everywhere, or forgetting one thing you are not supposed to forget: A specific task your boss asked you to do it. It happens to the best of us, and there are many approaches to tackle this. If you are on the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD ) slightly, you might want to have a thousand rules and multiple folder trees for all incoming traffic. That is a sure way to crash your desktop mail client. You can try the other extreme, keeping everything on a web-based platform like Gmail and search for messages with specific keywords. Except that does not work if you forgot the keyword. So, what would be the ideal way? Well, there is no single magic solution for all, but a principle exists:          

ZERO INBOX

Depending on your OCD spectrum, you might want to categorize your messages automatically or semi-automatically to folders/tags but do not sweat over it. Few broad categories and rules that are easier to understand and implement would be sufficient for 92% of us. Having a two folder approach of Work/Personal is as good as any multiple layered folder trees. 

How Often Deal with Email?

Some email gurus recommend checking your messages only during specific times in a day. OK, boomer, that does not work anymore. In a post-pandemic world where there is no more work/life balance, everybody wants an immediate response. That does not mean you have to answer that email at 01:00 AM (unless that is your boss' boss!). The civilized approach usually understood in corporate cultures is to respond within a reasonable time (read: immediately) during office hours. Or, you can answer it the following day within the first hour if the message arrives at your inbox after your official office hour (exception: your boss' boss). This is your first cardinal rule:

Deal with your email immediately.

Let’s deal. Start with if you are in TO, CC: or god forbid BCC: 

BCC messages are the easiest to deal with. You have to delete them. It is an evil invention, and some organizations even do not allow BCC functionality on their servers. BCC usually means that some are scheming and illustrates the dysfunctionality in that environment. To repeat common knowledge, please never send a BCC message. Suppose you need to relay some information about correspondence to a third party; just forward that message. I must warn you that is also usually frowned upon, and be very careful if you need to do that. My auto-rule;

Delete BCC emails automatically.

CC messages are also easy to get rid of. CC messages, by definition, mean 'for your information, and it would not require any action on your part. If someone sends you a CC message and asks about your contribution/comment/action, they are simply using email wrong. You can remind them of this in a friendly way. Then archive it. If you are receiving 100+ emails per day as CC, you can create a rule to auto-archive these messages so they do not even pollute your inbox. Another extreme is auto-delete all CC messages. That would depend on your seniority and credibility in your organization. My auto-rule:           

Archive CC emails automatically.

We got rid of two categories of email already. Now let’s look at the remaining messages that you are in the TO field. There is a little flow chart action here: 

1. Check message; does it require your reply/action?

2. If NO, ARCHIVE it.

3. If YES, Does the answer require more than 1 minute to compose?

4. If NO. ANSWER and ARCHIVE.

5. If Yes. Put in TO-DO folder, deal with it later.

You see, it is straightforward. Now you can allocate that specific time of yours to deal with all these TO-DOs later. Depending on your schedule, you can create one or two dedicated TO-DO email slots, like one before lunchtime and one late afternoon. So last rule becomes;

 Archive or Answer-Archive or Push-in TO-DO.

Now you have a clean and all-new inbox with no worries. You have your quality time to manage those TO-DO emails. We do have a target there too. You have to make sure your end-of-day TO-DO folder is empty. There might be days that you are behind your schedule, and there are few unanswered messages, but they will be easier to manage and identify as few token items on your TO-DO folder the next day. They will not be lost among hundreds of TPS.  Reports. 

Your inbox will also look empty. That is a super relief and feeling of achievement. You can look at the zero-inbox target as a personal development tool.

How about your overflowing inbox right now? We can fix that very quickly, too, so you can start as fresh and motivated with your new life. 

Create another folder WEEKEND. Move the entirety of your inbox there. Bam! Zero Inbox. Use your new zero inbox approach for the new incoming mail and deal with WEEKEND monstrosity as a weekend project. Your target is to clean that WEEKEND folder eventually:

DELETE or ARCHIVE or ANSWER or MOVE TO-DO. 

This approach is a simplified version of David Allen's Getting Things Done  Productivity system. Mr. Allen applies his approach to everything in life: There is "stuff" coming in, and he has an illustrative flowchart on managing that stuff. His book and training  are highly recommended.

NEXT: Eat that Frog!

[1] tl;dr is an internet abbreviation used mainly for millennials and busy individuals who usually comment on any information more than 140 characters, simply meaning TOO LONG DIDN'T READ, and serves as an excellent reminder for communicators to distill their message into a single line.

[2] OCD is not a joke. It is a severe mental disorder, and this text does not attempt to deprecate the seriousness of this disorder.

[3] In the modern cubicle culture, TPS is an acronym meaning "Totally Pointless Stuff," which was made famous in the movie Office Space.

[4]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done

[5] https://gettingthingsdone.com/what-is-gtd/ 

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