Email has changed quite a bit since the “You’ve got mail!” days of AOL. Back then, it was easy to get excited about receiving a single new message, but today we’re faced with overflowing inboxes and heaps of unread emails. That’s made the idea of reaching “inbox zero” such an appealing idea.
For many of us, of course, it remains a holy grail. Seeing triple-digits in the unread-email counter is far from uncommon. But no matter what volume of emails you receive, whittling them down is possible, even if it isn’t easy. These are the five most effective strategies for actually reaching inbox zero, and staying there.
This is a no-brainer. You aren’t the only one who receives the same emails from the same lists every week. Or who, despite never reading (or even opening) most of them, never unsubscribes. It’s one of the quickest ways to fill your inbox with unread, unwanted email.
This pattern needs to stop. You can do it manually, but if you’re as busy as I tend to be, I’d suggest checking out Unroll.me to help automate the process. It can unsubscribe you from all of your useless email newsletters in one click. It will then send you the stuff you actually want to read in a single, cleanly formatted daily digest.
While getting to inbox zero is a large task in itself, maintaining that magical position is even harder. By setting up smart, proactive filters, you’ll be able to limit the amount of unwanted email that makes its way into your inbox.
If you don’t need to see them right away (or potentially at all), set a filter to direct them into their own folders and have them marked as read. You can always go back and see what’s been deposited there–and delete them en masse–at your leisure. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing this manually, which isn’t a good use of your time.
Have you written a great answer to someone’s question, only to receive the same exact question 20 minutes later? It’s tedious and makes replying to emails a burden. If you receive the same kinds of questions, requests, or invitations all the time, write some canned responses that you can fire off quickly. In some email platforms, you can even save them in your “signatures” list and drop the right one into the body of a new message in a single click, rather than copying and pasting.
With the rise of easy-to-implement workplace chat solutions like Slack or HipChat, it’s now possible to significantly reduce the amount of email you receive in the first place. By working with colleagues through one of these clients, you can eliminate status updates, lunch invitations, quick requests, check-ins, and hundreds of other small, routine emails that would otherwise gobble up space in your inbox.
If you don’t use one of these solutions already, consider implementing something similar in your organization. And if your team already uses these tools, check in with your inbox to see how many regular emails you could eliminate by moving the conversation to chat.
Set aside time to check and reply to email, and stick with it the same way you’d schedule a meeting or phone call. Doing so turns email into a daily project all its own, something that you’ve specifically arranged to do.
That might actually help make you more productive overall. No longer will you be halfway through an important project, only to be interrupted by a new email. The costs of multitasking are too great. Avoid the distraction by clearly defining when you’ll sit down to go over email, and when you’ll be completely focused on other things.
Small tricks like unsubscribing from email lists and creating filters can work wonders in your pursuit of inbox zero. But at the end of the day, your habits and routines will fuel your long-term success. If you’re determined to forge your way to an empty inbox–and stay there–it’s essential to put some habits in place that you can realistically adopt.
Which is why most of this advice is useless until you actually get started. So get down to it. The time you invest now will pay dividends in increased productivity, peace of mind, and that satisfied feeling you get from coming home to a clean house–that feeling of being in control.
David Henzel cofounded MaxCDN, a content delivery network based in Los Angeles dedicated to helping startups scale. On his blog he writes about what he has learned along the way. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.