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The 7-Step Guide To Achieving Inbox Zero—And Staying There—In 2018

Getting your email under control is the best thing you can do for your productivity. These strategies and tactics will make it happen.

The 7-Step Guide To Achieving Inbox Zero—And Staying There—In 2018
[Photo: Jay Wennington/Unsplash]

Our inboxes have become perpetually overflowing mountains of irritation—and instead of helping us to be more productive, they just seem to suck hours out of our days.

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So what’s the secret to managing your inbox while also managing to stay sane? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. And while I’m still working on achieving that ever-elusive state of email nirvana, I’ve identified the optimal formula for getting an inbox in order and keeping it that way.

Incorporating any part of this process into your email routine will help you stay organized and avoid unnecessary time wasting and frustration. If you can actually manage to internalize every step listed below, email enlightenment will be yours. Consider it the ultimate New Year’s resolution for busy people.

1. Reframe The Way You Think About Your Inbox

Quick: Look at your inbox and see how many messages have been sitting there for 24 hours or more. If the answer is anything other than “zero,” it’s time to step back and reevaluate your strategy for managing email.

When you stop and think about it, it’s actually pretty obvious: Having a giant list of pending messages in your face all the time isn’t an effective method of organization. How often do you lose track of emails or realize you never got around to taking care of something you meant to handle several days ago? Being visually overwhelmed tends to lead to those sorts of issues rather than efficiency.

That doesn’t mean you have to answer every email immediately, of course. For most of us, that’d be impractical. It just means you have to make it your goal to deal with every email in some way soon after you see it.

For every email you encounter, choose from the following fast-triage options:

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  1. If a message requires no action on your behalf, archive it immediately.
  2. If a message requires a simple reply that you can knock out in a minute or less, respond right then and there—and then archive it immediately.
  3. If a message requires some level of thought or response that you can’t get to right away, snooze it to a time and date when you will be able to handle it—whether it’s later that same day, sometime the following week, or on a Friday two months down the road. That’ll get the message out of your way so it doesn’t serve as a constant source of distraction. And then it will reappear and grab your attention when the time is right.

(Google’s Inbox app has a native snooze function designed for this exact purpose, while several excellent add-ons can bring the same concept into Gmail. If you’re stuck using Outlook, meanwhile—well, good luck.)

A good rule of thumb: Never open an email twice, and never leave an email in your inbox beyond a single day. The next several items will help make that objective even easier to maintain.

2. Start Thinking Of Email Like A Messaging Service

An entire movement exists around the idea of writing every email in five sentences or less. There’s even a website you can reference in your signature if you’re worried about coming across as rude.

But being concise doesn’t have to be boorish. Heck, five sentences leaves you ample space for a quick “Hope you’re well” opening and a friendly closing line, if you feel the need. (Hey, I’m from the Midwest. I get the yearning for unwavering politeness.)

The secret is to think of email like a messaging service: Ask yourself how you would compose any given email if it were a text. Make it a touch more formal, perhaps, and add in pleasantries as appropriate, as there’s your message.

Aside from saving yourself time and letting you plow through incoming emails more efficiently, this approach comes with an added bonus: It’ll make your outgoing emails more effective—because you’ll be making it easier for the recipient to read your message, understand what you want, and then fire off a similarly succinct reply.

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This doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast rule: You can get more wordy when you’re describing a meaty project proposal or writing your dear Aunt Ethel. But it’s a good guideline to keep in mind for most emails, most of the time.

3. Stop Writing The Same Stuff Over And Over

We all have our own sets of stock emails—the standard messages we write over and over for our work or personal affairs. Maybe it’s making an introduction, declining an invitation, or sending an expected document. Whatever the case may be, you almost certainly waste your time (and test your sanity) by hammering it out repeatedly, day in and day out.

So here’s the fix: Stop repeating yourself. Almost every email service has some sort of system for creating and using templates. Take 10 minutes to create templates for all of your recurring messages, then take care of all future instances with a two-second click.

Gmail's Canned Responses feature, available in the Labs section of the website's settings, lets you create and insert templates for common responses.
Gmail’s Canned Responses feature, available in the Labs section of the website’s settings, lets you create and insert templates for common responses.

4. Send Your Time-Consuming Clutter Away

If you’re anything like me, less than 10% of your incoming mail is actually pertinent—in other words, anything you need to know or that requires a response. And that means a staggering 90% of your email is likely doing little more than eating up your day.

Let’s cut it off at the source, shall we? First, the easy part: For the next week, unsubscribe from every list-based email you get—unless you really, truly need it or benefit from receiving it.

Next, for recurring messages from which you can’t easily unsubscribe, create filters that automatically place them in out-of-the-way areas of your email hierarchy. (Google’s Inbox is designed explicitly to do this, with built-in sections like “Promos,” “Social,” and “Updates” that can be set to appear only once daily or once weekly. Gmail also has an option for a similar set of autosorted categories, though it’s a bit less powerful and intuitive.)

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Inbox can identify certain types of emails and then show them to you in clusters periodically.
Inbox can identify certain types of emails and then show them to you in clusters periodically.

If you know emails from certain senders are never going to be relevant to you, meanwhile, consider the nuclear option: creating a manual filter that sends them directly into your spam or trash folder. Every future email you don’t have to deal with is time saved.

Finally, when you get a reply-all thread that isn’t going anywhere, use your email app’s mute or ignore function to quietly unsubscribe from any future responses. And think about giving out alternate addresses for certain types of emails, like those associated with online accounts or reward clubs.

If you use Gmail or Inbox, you can create a virtually infinite number of aliases by placing a period anywhere in your username or placing a plus sign followed by a word at the end of your username. That’ll give you a simple variable for creating scenario-specific filters to keep inconsequential messages out of your hair.

All of these steps work toward the same basic goal: turning your inbox into a place for messages that actually require your attention, with less time-consuming clutter getting in the way.

5. Stop Organizing Your Email!

In the physical world, devoting time to organizing documents into folders makes a lot of sense—because how else are you going to find all those papers when you need them?

In the virtual world of email, however, that same system has turned into a time-wasting shackle. The fastest way to find an old email is almost always by searching—and consequently, clinging onto a dated method of meticulous label-placing and folder-filing is giving yourself extra work for no real reason.

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So you know what? As a wise virtual princess once said, let it go. Stop worrying about organizing all of your incoming email and just power through it. Then, when you need to find something in the future, search. Familiarize yourself with your email app’s advanced search parameters (Gmail and Inbox have some pretty robust options), and pat yourself on the back for letting machines do your heavy lifting.

6. Consolidate Your Email-Handling Schedule

If you were to set out to devise the most annoying and ineffective system for email management, you’d probably come up with something where a sound or alert interrupted you every time a new message comes in, commandeering your attention and while you’re busy doing something else.

And yet that’s precisely how most of us deal with email—in the most productivity-wrecking manner possible. Study after study shows that switching tasks causes us to work less effectively and efficiently, with some research suggesting we lose as much as 40% of our productivity by hopping between multiple things. Opening up email is no exception.

So stop fighting your brain’s nature and set up a system that works with your brain instead of against it. Pick a handful of designated times throughout the day to deal with email—maybe mid-morning, after lunch, and late afternoon—and then stop peeking at your inbox outside of those windows.

Set yourself up for success by keeping your email app closed by default and open only during the times you actively need it. And turn off email notifications on both your computer and your phone. If you’re worried about missing any urgent incoming messages—messages that actually demand immediate attention and can’t wait a couple hours for a response—take a few minutes to create custom notifications that’ll alert you only about those highest-priority messages.

The end result is a win-win: You’ll manage your email more efficiently by tackling it in a small number of dedicated moments, and you’ll be more focused and productive with the rest of your day without the constant barrage of inbox-oriented interruptions.

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7. Consider Some Next-Level Email Management Tools

Throughout the course of this story, I’ve mentioned a few different utilities that make it easier to keep your inbox under control. If you’re in a position to try them out, you may find it to be a beneficial time investment.

The simplest option is Inbox—because it takes many of the concepts we’ve just discussed and turns them into a native part of your email environment (and if you’re a Gmail fan who’s tried it before without success, this Gmail-to-Inbox switching guide was written specifically with you in mind).

If Inbox doesn’t work for you but you are in Google’s email universe, some choice Gmail add-ons can go a long way in enhancing your email experience. From reimagining your inbox’s interface to adding on valuable productivity features, there’s a whole world of possibilities just waiting to be tapped—and there’s no better time to explore it than now.

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