One of the most important changes you can make in your life, to reclaim your time and get important things done, is to adopt Inbox Zero is a regular habit when dealing with your email.

For those who don’t know, Inbox Zero is a system that was invented by productivity guru Merlin Mann a couple of years back. Now he’s working on a book by the same name, which I’m incredibly excited about.

I won’t go into the fundamental details here, because those are Merlin’s domain.

Check out Merlin Mann’s guide to Inbox Zero.

Here’s the basics for Inbox Zero, just in case you don’t have time to read Merlin’s stuff right now, or you just need a refresher coarse.

Information overload is ruining your email productivity.

With information overload being what it is these days, it’s incredibly important to be able to know in a single glance what emails you have to deal with, when you sit down to do email.

You just want the emails in your inbox to be emails you need to deal with now. The rest need to go.

I’ve been a huge believer in Inbox Zero for a number of years. I’ve worked out an extremely minimalist email system that reduces the number of emails I receive to around 5-10 a day.

By taking control of my Inbox I can spend more time writing and less time answering emails that don’t benefit me. I’d like to share this system with you.

Are you harboring an inbox with 500+ email messages that you need to reply to? Or worse, do you just leave any message you’ve replied to in your inbox?

If you approach email this way, you have to mentally sort through 500 messages every time you look at your email. This is a very ineffective approach. Inbox Sub-Zero will save you from wasting hours of time on email, I promise.

It’s 2010 people, let’s get a grasp on this stuff.

I’ve taken Merlin’s ideas one step further: I don’t want any useless emails entering my email box at all.

Every unimportant email needs to go, because it’s probably harming my ability to do important work like writing this blog, creating stories for other people’s blogs, and doing freelance work for important people.

I assume that 80% of the emails I receive are probably not worth reading, and I create filters so I never have to see these emails again.

In honor of how cold it is outside right now, I call this philosophy Inbox Sub-Zero.

Inbox Sub-Zero hinges on Gmail’s filter and archive functions, so if you don’t have gmail this will be a little harder to achieve. I’m just going to assume you have gmail, but if you’re unwilling to make the switch you can probably adapt these ideas to other email clients, they just won’t be as effective.

The fundamentals of Inbox Sub-Zero:

  1. Every email that I receive must create value for you.
  2. Unsubscribe to anything unimportant.
  3. Filter everything that is questionable.
  4. Read, act, and archive remaining emails immediately.

Simple enough?

Prep work for Inbox Sub-Zero

If you have 500 emails in your box, I want you to just select them all and hit archive now. Put them away, don’t deal with them.

Sorting through that many emails is going to take you hours or days, which probably means you’ll never get around to it –you haven’t already, have you?

If there is anything important in there, they will probably email you again or give you a call when you don’t reply. Use the excuse “Oh, sorry, I’m so busy I must have overlooked that email.” and you should be fine.

Making the decision to archive all your emails now will instantly liberate you from your past email overload.

Once you’ve learned the techniques outlined below, you can apply them to any new incoming emails.

Don’t go back and do this to all 167,054 emails in your archive. Just apply these techniques to new emails.

Archiving everything now makes reclaiming your inbox manageable. I want you to actually achieve Inbox Sub-Zero. The easiest way I can think of to do that if you have 500 email messages in your box, is by archiving everything and just dealing with incoming emails.

Got it? Okay, archive them. Thanks!

Every email you receive must create value for you.

I use my email primary to communicate with clients, my friends, and my social network. So these are my priorities. When I glance into my email box in the morning, I just want to see messages from people who I am working with, or who I enjoy talking to.

These are emails from real people, who are writing emails to me. These are not from robots, I don’t want to hear from machines.

Decide what your priority emails are. Chances are they are emails coming from real people.

Here’s a mostly complete list of the emails I want in my inbox in the morning:

  • Emails from my girlfriend
  • Emails from my friends
  • Emails from clients I am currently working on projects with
  • Emails from clients that want to work on projects with me
  • Emails from real people who have enjoyed or want to comment on my work

These are the only emails I want to see in the morning. You’re probably thinking “but what about all of the other emails?” We’re so used to receiving 300-900 emails a day, it’s become kind of comforting to know that we’re so popular. But in actuality, we don’t need to read 80% of these emails.

We’re just reading them out of habit, they’re not contributing anything to our lives.

Unsubscribe from anything that is unimportant

You archived everything that was in your inbox already, right? Good. Because this rule applies to incoming emails.

Whenever you receive an email, ask yourself this powerful question:

Do I need to read this? Answer:

  • Yes
  • Maybe
  • No

If you answered ‘yes’, then continue to the filtering routine I’ve outlined below. If you answered ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ I want you do one of two things immediately.

Do not WAIT. Do not let the email sit in your inbox and collect dust while you deliberate for three days over the merits of whether or not you need to read this email. By that time you’ll have 500 emails in your box again. Just decide now and take an action.

  1. Unsubscribe from the email. If there is an unsubscribe button, go ahead and hit it right now. Follow the instructions to stop receiving that email.
  2. If you can’t unsubscribe, (or really can’t bring yourself to) create a filter in gmail to archive the email. This will send the email to the ‘all mail’ folder, where you can search for it if you happen to need to read it at any time.

DO NOT create a label for any of these ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ emails. Remember, this is Inbox SUB-Zero, which is my approach and is a little harsher on the emails than Merlin’s approach. Any email that I have the slightest doubt about wanting to read, I don’t want to see anymore.

Filter every other email that you receive.

Use filters to labels for emails you actually want to read, that are sent by real human beings.

Why this is important: I want to spend the least amount of time and effort on emails as possible. I imagine if you’re reading this, you want to do that too. My intention with this article is to give you the skills to liberate yourself from email, so you only have to spend 30-seconds to twenty minutes on email a day, instead of 4 hours.

For many of the regular emails that you receive that you actually need to read, you need to create a filter.

Here are the regular emails I receive that I actually need:

  1. Requests for edits from a copywriting client that I work for sometimes
  2. Social networking messages
  3. Emails from useful blogs and newsletters that I subscribe to, that I actually read.
  4. Financial emails from my bank and payment receipts

I’ve created filters, using gmail’s ‘filter emails like this’, which sends these emails into specific labels.

I use the labels ‘work’ ‘social’ ‘reading’ and ‘financial’, you are free to develop your own system based on your needs. Just remember, keep it simple.

Emails from my girlfriend and friends are not labeled and go straight to my email box.

In the future, if any of these labels is piling up with unread emails you really need to consider changing the label to send these emails to the trash.

Take action on creating the labels NOW.

DO NOT WAIT, do not deliberate for seventeen days on which label to use. Just send them to a label, you can always change this later if it’s the wrong one.

Read, act, and archive all remaining emails immediately.

Now that you’ve dealt with the email you don’t need to read, you need to deal with the emails you do receive.

After you’ve read an email, ask yourself this powerful question:

Do I need to reply to this? If no, hit the archive button and send it away.

If yes, reply to it now. Then hit archive.

Sometimes there are emails that are more important than most, like ‘hi Everett, can you send a proposal to redesign and relaunch my internet magazine with 300,000 subscribers. We want to pay you $80,000 to do this’. I haven’t received an email like that, but when I do, I want to take a few days to come up with a solid business plan.

At this point though, I want to take this out of my email. I put this on my to-do list. My to-do list isn’t long, because I deal with most of my projects and emails immediately in the morning when I receive them.

For important life-altering emails like the one above, send a brief note thanking the sender and tell them that you will get back to them in a few days. Make a note on your to-do list. Hit archive.

Repeat these steps for every email that you receive.

Eventually you will have only important emails entering your inbox. At this point congratulate yourself, you’ve achieved Inbox Sub-Zero!

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