Take a minute to check your email. How does your inbox look right now? Are there unread messages? Read messages waiting for your response or delegation? Does the state of your inbox stress you out?
Imagine how you’d feel if you ended every day with a completely empty inbox. Does that sound like an impossible dream? It’s not! You can and should get to Inbox Zero every day.
What is Inbox Zero
Inbox Zero is a term coined by Merlin Mann describing the state of your inbox when you have nothing in it that demands your attention.
By my standards, Inbox Zero is an inbox where there is nothing in view. That doesn’t mean that I’ve deleted everything, though sometimes that would be easier! It means that everything is categorized, organized, delegated or deleted. Ideally, the only items in my inbox are unread messages that I receive between my email checking sessions.
My goal is to reach Inbox Zero by the end of each business day or about 6 pm. I know other people who reach Inbox Zero on Sunday nights. Find a way that works for you. Getting to Inbox Zero each day requires more commitment than doing it weekly.
Why You Should Reach Inbox Zero
Your inbox is a time suck. It doesn’t have to be, but for most people it is. The average person receives about 120 emails per day and checks their email repeatedly throughout the day.
US workers estimate spending 6.3 hours per day checking their email. Even if you aren’t checking email to that extreme, you are probably wasting some valuable time in your inbox. You could use that time to further your business, work on a side project, or enjoy some downtime.
Inbox Zero Boosts Your Productivity
Inbox Zero is a great productivity tool because it requires you to focus your efforts into organizing your business and personal life. It also stops you from using your inbox as a to-do list and forces you to put systems into place.
You should never use your inbox as a to-do list. That’s not what it’s for! Think of your inbox as a communication tool not a project management tool. You send the message or deliverables through email, but you store the message and organize deliverables or information about it somewhere else. This could be any project management system you prefer like Asana, Trello, or my favorite Wunderlist.
Your inbox should not be a place where you go to see what tasks you need to do. That information should be logged in your project management system. Each evening, or morning before you start work, you should check your project management tool and make a list of tasks for the day. When your work day starts, you should complete your first task before checking your email. After at least one task is complete, you can go into email and record urgent or new tasks that have come in since you last checked your email the day before.
How to do Inbox Zero
Once you choose your project management system, you will take tasks from your inbox and record them there. Once the task is recorded, you can file the email to get it out of your inbox view. There are a variety of ways you can set up your inbox filing system.
- Pending and complete folder system
You could choose to file tasks in a pending folder and complete folder system. This system consists of two major folders. Items places in the pending folder need to be responded to. Items placed in the complete folder are done.
- Client’s name and pending/complete folder system
This folder system works well if you have numerous clients emailing you to one email address. You can set up folders with each client’s name and subfolders with pending and complete. When an email comes in, you file it under the client’s name and pending. Once you have sent the client their response or deliverable, you file under complete.
- Weekly work folder system
Another way to set up your inbox is to have a folder called “Weekly work” where you keep all of the pending items that you have received that week. Once you’ve finished the work, you could either use a complete folder or file under the client’s name.
There are dozens of combinations of folder systems (and labels) that you could use to organize your inbox. Choose a system that makes sense to you.
Personally, I use a pending folder and the client’s name to organize my inbox. Any work I need to complete is in my pending folder. Once I send my reply, I put the email into a folder titled with the client’s name. The only time this differs is when I’m working out of a branded email account.
Reaching Inbox Zero in Client Accounts
There are some clients who set up branded email accounts for their assistants. When I have a client who does this, I use the pending and complete folder system. I also tag emails with labels like “training materials”, `”expenses”, “travel”, etc. But, just like with my personal inbox, I’m don’t use the inbox as a to-do list. Any task goes into my project management system (currently Wunderlist) or the project management system that my client prefers.
In the past, I’ve had clients whose email accounts regularly have 2000 unread emails! When an inbox is like this, important emails can be missed and unimportant emails can seem more urgent than they actually are.
Keeping your branded email account tidy and organized helps you keep your client on track. You can see at a glance what items need a response. You save time because you don’t need to re-read emails. Inbox Zero can help you be the type of assistant who gets things done on time and doesn’t need to be reminded of a sent email. Keep in mind, you can’t help someone else get organized if you are disorganized.
Getting to Inbox Zero can be a daunting task, but once you’ve mastered the practice, it will make your life so much easier. Maintaining Inbox Zero keeps your mind clear to focus on getting things done. As freelancers, our time is our most valuable asset and Inbox Zero can help you gain some of that precious resource back.