Delete This: 7 Tips For Getting Your Inbox To Zero

You're drowning in email. You need help. These tips will stem the email flood and give you peace of mind.

I’m honestly embarrassed at how something so trivial as email has become such a significant source of stress in my life. But it really is. On some days I feel like my inbox is this dark cloud hovering over my life disallowing any peace from settling in. It is a never-ending, constantly growing, impossibly satisfied, infinite mound of mounting minutiae to process and complete.

At times, I’ve had a hard time relaxing because each minute I’m away from my inbox I know that it’s piling up and up only waiting for me to deal with later. In fact, I’ve decided that email is actually an acronym that stands for Endless Major Anxiety Increase List. What seems unfair to me is that I can be up at the crack of dawn, in meetings and on calls all day long working at an incredible emotional and physical pace and then when I’m "done" working at 6:15 p.m. I check my inbox to find that I have 200 items waiting to be responded to.

While I find humorous—and have actually considered—the clamoring smart aleck advising, "I just hit select all and delete," that doesn’t work in the real world. In the real world I have customers, employees, vendors, accountants, family, and friends who are all expecting a response and often needing a response to move initiatives forward in their lives.

And while I do also appreciate the efforts of—and have derived some value from—the world's well-meaning "time management experts," I have found that most of them have created systems whose complexities create more stress and work than they solve, or they have strategies that work on their own inboxes because they don’t actually have what resembles a real corporate job with lots of various stakeholders.

So what does work in the real world? I’m not sure that I have the real answer—in fact I’m pretty sure that I don’t. What I do have is a few survival strategies that seemed to help me keep my beast of an inbox at bay and under some type of reasonable control. I’ll share mine with you if you promise to share any tips you have that really work.

Let’s make this short because you and I both have emails to get back to:

1. The Save Out: A breakthrough realization for me was acknowledging that I am a "digital pack rat." Just like I have clothes in my closet that I never wear but refuse to get rid of "just in case" (hey, you never know when tie-dye is going to make a comeback) I do the same thing with my email. Instead of storing it in your inbox though, just copy and paste the entire email to a word document and file it there for safekeeping. Word docs are designed to be saved and stored but emails are not. There is an emotional attachment to every email in your inbox so get it out of sight so that it’s out of mind.

2. Offline Attack: Do not underestimate the power of momentum when responding to emails. Nothing is more emotionally defeating than spending 2 hours in your inbox and having a net gain of only 2 emails completed because responses were coming in as fast as you were sending them out or because you got into a game of "email tennis" with someone who obviously has more time on their hands than you do. Instead, work "offline" every single time you answer emails. That way you can focus on what you are doing and you can capitalize on the synergy that comes along with getting into a rhythm of responding.

3. Extended Out of Office: When you go out of town for vacation or a work conference, turn your "out of office responder" for one day longer than you’re actually gone. I’ve found that having an out of office responder on all the time telling people how busy we are just annoys them—and doesn’t stop them from sending us emails. But turning on OOR once in a while really does have a positive effect in causing people to think before firing off an email to you knowing that you’re gone. The magic—which I discovered by accident—is in adding one extra day to it so that you legitimately have a catch-up day to get your feet back under you when you return.

4. Multiple Strings: Unfortunately a large number of people lack what should be required prudence in using the "reply all" button. Therefore it's incredible the number of emails in your inbox that will be "strings." In other words, you’ll have 10 emails that are all the same conversation. Train your assistant to go through your inbox and delete all email strings except the most recent (careful to include any attachments) or turn on the "conversations" button in Outlook which consolidates all of them tightly together for you if they share the same subject line. If neither of those tools is available to you then quickly glance at your email list for emails with the same subject line and delete the oldest ones, leaving the newer ones for you to read later. This is a quick way to process several emails all at once.

5. Email Date Night: Creating a date night with my wife once a week transformed our relationship. It worked because it was dedicated time together for us focused on just staying in love and doing fun things together outside the house one night a week (a Monday-Thursday).

Create the same protected time every so often with your inbox. It’s astounding how much you can get accomplished in four uninterrupted hours of office time. So rather than trying to "catch up" on your mobile phone while you’re walking between rooms at home or on your laptop while watching TV and having "family time," see if you can negotiate your family schedule to allow you one night a week (more or less as needed) where you can have a dedicated work night. With our coaching clients we’ve found that most families have no problem allowing mom or dad "a work night" and they can easily plan around it. What creates tension at home is when Mommy or Daddy is constantly on their BlackBerry every night and everywhere they go because it feels to everyone as though they are working "all the time."

6. Scan and Flip: When you sit down to finally catch up on email, work with a 2-minute drill. Per #2 above you should be offline and start to build momentum by first tackling any emails that can be processed and completed in less than two minutes. If it will take longer than two minutes to deal with then skip it for now and just continue scanning—get through the easy ones first. Then once you get to the bottom of your inbox (you will likely have made a large dent) "flip" your emails so that the oldest are at the top and the newest are at the bottom. Why? Because one of the biggest reasons why your inbox grows and grows is because it’s built on top of a pile of things you’ve been procrastinating on. Yes, one of the biggest causes of overwork is delaying in making decisions on yesterday’s stuff! Force yourself to do it, delegate it, or delete it and pull the rug out from underneath your other emails. By eliminating the base of emails at your inbox you’ll find that it’s less likely to pile up on top of itself.

7. Learn the "let go": Truly one of the most substantial growth areas for me in managing my office work was learning to let go of my own deep-rooted desire to share my opinion on everything. In my mind it may seem as though things won’t survive without my "infinite wisdom" but in reality very few things are as important as their initial impression leads us to think. And even fewer items yet will be handled significantly different in our organization solely because of my one additional insight. People are generally capable of making good decisions and often things end up being better than they would’ve been had I stuck my nose in it. This mental shift in your attitude will show up pragmatically in your inbox by you learning to enjoy the delete button—without needing to share a response. It’ll be hard at first but once you get use to it you’ll never look back and your inbox will thank you.

Email, like any other part of business, requires a strategy. Because the business landscape and the personalities within it are ever-changing so too must be your strategies. Einstein said "We can’t use the same level of thinking that created this problem to try and solve the problem." So while there may not be any perfect solutions to your inbox, hopefully these will help move you down the path. And if you have any other good ideas post them below—whatever you do, please don’t email me.

What do you do to keep your inbox manageable? Tell us about it in the comments.

—Rory Vaden, MBA is cofounder of Southwestern Consulting, a self-discipline strategist and speaker, and author of the New York Times best-seller Take the Stairs.

[Image: Flickr user Chris Gunton]

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53 Comments

  • David Fallarme

    #6 is hugely important - training yourself to deal with old problems you'd rather not deal with. It takes a lot of discipline, but luckily, discipline is a muscle that gets stronger with use.

  • Debi Davis

    About a year ago I set up a "rule" in my Outlook that sends any e-mail from someone who is NOT in my address book to a file I call "Potential Junk." Also, everyone in my address book is assigned to a color-coded category (another Outlook feature); e.g., their company name, or "vendor," or "family".  My visible inbox then only contains color-coded e-mails from people I know.  This has reduced my stress level because I can see at a glance all the e-mails that are important, and I'm not worried about missing something that's urgent.  

    Of course, you have to make a habit of checking the "Potential Junk" folder once a day. I've found that 15 minutes a day is all it takes to go through it and pick out the two or three items I want to read from new contacts.  If I plan to continue corresponding with the new contact, I add them to my address book so their next e-mail to me shows up in my visible inbox.

    I, like most of you, have tried all kinds of "tricks" to better manage my e-mail.  This one has provided me with better than expected results.  Now, I will try some of the tips you've suggested -- the "conversations" feature of Outlook, and "Scan and Flip" -- and see how much I can improve my system for staying sane.

    Thank you!

  • Greg Ewing

    There are some really good ideas in this post, thanks very much for taking the time to write it.
     
    Here's what I do:
     
    I have a single folder where all my "done" emails go, and a toolbar button that puts them there.  The button exists in the email window, and in the inbox window.  I file whole conversations at once in Outlook using this button.
     
    I have Auto Archive set to archive my "done" folder every day and only leave 7 days history. My archive folder also auto-archives itself once a day and only keeps 1 year of emails, the rest go into another archive of very old emails. My inbox never gets archived.
     
    I don’t get stuck in on every conversation, I only respond if my input is required, or will add value.
     
    I have an average of around 15 emails in my inbox at any time. 

  • AnitaAlex

    My biggest tip is to unsubscribe to everything you can. 
    The same with snail mail. Return to sender with a note "not at this address" on the envelope and your real world mail will diminish

  • David Bradley

    I setup personal folders in outlook. That way it gets stored to the hardrive automatically. That might be a little easier than pasting to word.

  • Joost Wouters

    Hi Rory, I like your post! I think that creating awareness about email overload is a very valuable thing to do. Not so much because of the email, but because of all the time we spend behind the screens. If you need a structural approach to control your email, create additional time and spend it on activities that really matter, maybe you'd like my book "The 15-Minute Inbox". Good luck!

  • Wendy Slaughter

    You might just love me for this. Instead of cutting and pasting into word, use Evernote. As you probably already know, Evernote syncs over all of your devices: laptop, iPad, phone. When you download Evernote, you'll receive a unique email address that you can use to email anything to your Evernote account. I'm a realtor so I set up a notebook in Evernote for each client. I forward emails to those notebooks instead of storing them in mail. It's delicious! The time you'll spend learning about Evernote is an excellent investment in your life.  Have fun!  :)

  • PERL

    Only check e-mail three times per day (first thing in the morning, mid-day, near-end of day)-- and schedule those times like any other meeting (block them off on your calendar to reduce interruptions). There is nothing so urgent that it cannot wait 3 hours to be processed -- and if it really IS that urgent, then the person notifying you should be using phone, text, instant message and every and all possible means to get you as quickly as possible.

  • PERL

    The MOST effective e-mail trick I've learned is: Create an efficient e-mail culture -- coach everyone within your sphere of influence (especially the people who work for you)  to:
    1) Not hit reply-to-all unless everyone really needs to be informed.
    2) Use MULTIPLE media such as text, instant message, or phone calls in addition to e-mail if a matter is BOTH urgent AND important.
    3) Say what the bottom line is in the first three sentences -- and put supporting details below or let me ask for more [if I need it].
    4) Keep the over all length of an e-mail to one [screen] page.
    5) Use SECURE social media (such as virtual "team rooms") to carry on project discussion threads rather than monstrous e-mail threads.

  • Talk2perl

    I use the "Rule of Threes" when playing e-mail tennis: If three e-mails [or texts or instant messages] on a topic have gone back and forth without any resolution in sight, it's time to pick up the phone. Verbal communication is 100 times faster and efficient. E-mail is only efficient when people are on the same page.

  • PERL

    Rory, two suggestions for more efficient long term storage of important e-mails (instead of the copy-and-paste-into-word approach): 1) Most e-mail systems have an "archive" feature that enables the user to archive e-mails to disk or another media. 2) Simple "Print" the e-mails to PDF (not paper) -- there are free and pay PDF print drivers that work just like any other printer on your system. This also creates a legally valid date-stamp.

  • Guest

    While I don't copy emmails toWord, I do copy project related emails to One Note. I also practice GTD and am a firm proponent of deleting.

  • Max-Marc Fossouo

    Good post Rory! I follow you everywhere you write whether on CNN or other great media and love the result of your studies. Regarding this post, I had issue dedicating a specific time for my emails and were checking them out every time on my phone between meetings and because of that sometimes I forgot to make appropriate follow ups to some important emails. I am going to follow you advice #5 and have a date night with my emails now and I believe it will increase the effectiveness of my emails checking activities and my time management. Again, Rory, thanks for your post!

  • Stephanie Smirnov

    I realize I'm about to sound like a shill--I'm not, rest assured! But I started using Evernote a month ago and am successfully maintaining a zero inbox--finally! Emails that used to sit in my inbox because I had yet to act on them, or because they contained attachments or links I "might" need one day I can now forward to my Evernote account for storage. I can tag the email so it automatically gets sorted into the right Evernote notebook. The only emails left in my inbox now are those I plan to act on within an hour or so. I can also access that info anytime I need it because my Evernote account syncs across work computer, home laptop, iPad and iPhone. Highly recommend it.

  • John Williams

    I find delete buttons scary - what if I delete something and then find I need it and its gone! One thing I have tried that seems to work is to open sub folders and at the end of each month sweep all the e-mails in your inbox into that folder. You then psychologically start the month with what looks like an empty inbox. And if you are suffering from e-mail withdrawal symptoms you can always re-open last months folder and have a sneak peak inside to reassure yourself that there isn't something important there trying to get out! 

  • Paul H. Burton

    Rory: Haven't connected with you since the Keynote Lab in Las Vegas a couple of years ago! Great article. 
    My work with lawyers and other professionals on time management regularly focuses on e-mail management. My advice, as an eighth point to your seven, is to construct of triaging mechanism to rid your inbox of all that doesn't require your attention, then queue what's left by its priority before getting back to the work of the day.QuietSpacing, my time management system, teaches that there are only four things that arrive in your inbox: Trash, Archive, Reference and Work. Trash can be tossed. Archive (completed work product and its kin) can be stored away. Reference (that which is used to create work product) can be filed away nearby. Work is what needs doing (by you or others). The queueing is by calendar date. Today, tomorrow, March 22nd, etc. Note, re-queueing Work as new things come into the inbox (or elsewhere) is not only permitted, it's encouraged and required.There are a number of tricks to speeding up and managing this process, which would take ... well ... a whole book to discuss, but using the model above is a great place to start.

  • Carlottau

    I see you are getting flack about #1.  I just spent half of today doing just that and then I read this article tonight suggesting it.  I think it is a great idea.   It is an easier way to manage e-mails that I  call "keepers" with other documents that are not e-mails.  It is particularly useful for long-term projects.   I also cut and paste e-mail content relevant to meetings and paste in the meetings or in the person's contact, especially if the e-mail gives me insight into the persons priorities or personality,

  • Peter Post

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it just feels good to know that I am not the only one in war with the inbox. My tips: #1: I do not read CC-Mail. If I am not addressed directly, it cannot be relevant. Most of my peers found out by now and stopped including me. #2: I tell people with whom I have weekly meetings to mail me only in emergencies. Most things can wait a few days, and people get an immediate decision in the meeting.