The concept of “Inbox Zero” gained popularity after a Google Tech Talk by its “inventor”, Merlin Mann, in July 2007. Contrary to what many might think, inbox zero is not a reference to the number of unread emails in a mailbox but, according to Mann, it relates to “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox”. In other words, Inbox Zero is about how we manage our time, deciding which emails to action, and in what order. Essentially it’s about focussing on what matters, developing a way to deal with emails, moving towards, rather than reaching, an inbox without any unread messages.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at how to get started on the inbox zero journey.
Email remains important…
No matter in what type of business or sector you work, email probably represents the most common method by which you communicate with your customers, your suppliers and, with remote working now more widespread, with your fellow team members.
Despite the predictions made over the years, email plays a major part in our working lives, is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and actually continues to grow even though there are many solutions around that make claim to being a better alternative. In our article “Email – Increasing or Decreasing in Popularity?” we observed that steady growth was expected at over 4% per annum over the coming years with the number of daily emails expected to exceed 347 billion per day with 4.3 billion users by the end of 2023.
Furthermore, with an average of 87 emails per day, employees spend up to 90 minutes each day, according to a survey by Loughborough University, or 7.5 hours a week, recovering from email interruptions. Repeatedly moving from task to task slows you down. It’s therefore very important that we have in place processes and procedures to manage those emails in the most efficient way.
… but it’s not without its challenges
Email is here to stay, it’s the most common way businesses communicate with each other, but it does come with a few challenges that need to be confronted:
Because it’s a quick way of communicating it’s easy to get into the habit of responding quickly – some people expect a quick response – but don’t forget that not all emails need to be treated equally.
It’s possible for email to consume 80% of your time but only represent 20% of your responsibilities – ask yourself, “where does my value really lie in the business?” and focus on that.
Watching your inbox, looking out for replies, can waste a significant amount of valuable time.
cc’s and Bcc’s can also waste a huge amount of time, both your own and that of others, especially when used without careful thought
Reducing email “noise” is one of our earlier articles that you might find a useful read when it comes to deciding how best to deal with an increasingly busy inbox.
Step One: review then clean out your inbox
Before trying to find ways to improve the way you handle emails, give your inbox a thorough clean. It’ll help you understand what’s in there and how the different types of messages are impacting your workflows – after that you’ll have a better insight in preparation for devising ways to deal with them.
However, first make sure you have separate addresses for private and for work emails. Never mix the two. If you do then you’ll have even more of a challenge on your hands. Separate the two as soon as you can.
Whilst the remainder of this article focusses on work emails, the principles remain the same when it comes to tackling your private emails.
During the review, consider the following:
• Types – look at the different types of email you receive. They’ll fall into a number of broad categories, including those from suppliers, customers, colleagues, and after that newsletters, spam and the like;
• Timing – how far do they go back? Also, ask yourself: are there any noticeable trends, an awareness of which may be useful when it comes to managing time? For example, do they tend to come in at a particular time of day, mornings, afternoons? If so, this may provide some insight into when time should be allocated during your working day to deal with them;
• Who – you’ll start to see patterns – it may be that most of your emails are from a limited number of senders. Is there a way to reduce the number ongoing by communicating in a different way, maybe by telephone? Are you being cc’d unnecessarily? And so on…
Having completed this exercise you’ll have started to understand how you currently handle emails, and should now be getting some ideas on how your inbox could be organised in a more efficient way. Essentially the possible actions to deal with it as it stands right now (as well as future emails once the current clean up is complete), to address the issues of which you will now be aware, are limited in number. You can either:
• Action, or
When deciding what goes where, the so-called Eisenhower matrix provides a helpful visualisation. Named after Dwight D Eisenhower, the 34th US President (1953 to 1961), a method of prioritising was developed, based around his quote: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.
• Those emails falling in Quadrant 1 should be actioned the same day and personally
• Those in Quadrant 2 again should be actioned personally but this time they will have a deadline, but it’s not immediate
• Quadrant 3 contains those emails that, whilst urgent, can either be delegated to someone else or deferred for now
• Emails that have neither importance nor urgency fall into Quadrant 4 and can possibly be deleted or, in the case of newsletters, offers etc, unsubscribed.
Step Two: working with emails – ongoing
Moving forward, you will need a system to manage your emails, prioritising and responding with an appropriate action at a time that causes minimum disruption to your productivity. When developing a system that works for you, consider:
• Allocating a number of times during the day for checking your inbox – focus on times you feel you will be most productive and don’t leave incoming emails to cause disruption throughout the day
• When not using it, close your email software and turn off notifications other than those for which you need to be disturbed. Having allocated time to action your inbox, continual notifications will be a distraction. They are almost impossible to ignore and the urge to look at what has arrived will be to the detriment of productivity
• Each time you look at your inbox prioritise, running through the following steps, making use of folders, tags and flags:
– do a quick review and then delete, archive or unsubscribe (or even block) – as many as possible, Quadrant 4 above
– forward those that can be handled by someone else adding a note (see CompassAir Discussions for a simple way of doing this), Quadrant 3. If you are not the best person to handle something, delegate to someone who is. BUT be careful who you cc so as not to move your clutter on to someone else
– respond immediately to those emails that can be answered very quickly, or that need to be answered quickly, trying to keep the response as short as possible (less can be more). Each time you do consider responding ask yourself “is this a distraction from what really needs to be done?” – your time is valuable, Quadrant 1
– for those that need a response that will take more than a few minutes, move them to a folder to deal with later, colour code them or use a follow-up reminder, maybe to one of three: action “Today”, “This Week” or “This Month”, this is Quadrant 2
• Archive those emails that you have dealt with – they can always be found later by searching, if and when you need them.
• Having done the above, set aside time for a once a week inbox clean-up
Another approach along the same lines that works for some is to simply regularly clean your inbox, deleting everything more than a couple of months old. The idea here is that those emails are probably now too old to deal with or possibly have been dealt with already. Having done that, review everything that remains, this time responding, deleting and unsubscribing. For those you don’t know what to do with, transfer them to a temporary holding folder – it’s likely these will be deleted in due course anyway.
Over the course of two weeks workers were split into two groups. The first kept their email program closed, with notifications turned off, checking their emails only three times a day (actually the average was 4.5 times, they found it hard to stop at 3!). The second group left notifications on and checked their email throughout the day (an average of 12.5 times per day). After a week the groups switched. Interestingly, those who checked their emails throughout the day did not consider themselves to be any more productive, and importantly both groups dealt with the same number of emails as they normally would.
Inbox Zero – make it a journey and not a destination
If you do manage to reach inbox zero, it’s almost guaranteed to be a state that doesn’t exist for very long. Even without any unread emails you are likely to always have a to do list. For example, you may have transferred a number of emails into a “to do folder” which means, whilst not unread, they are still outstanding. The peace of mind we associate with no unread emails is really an illusion, as an awareness of outstanding tasks will never go away. Peace of mind will come from accepting the fact that, although you will never have completed all you have to do, there is a system in place to deal with what remains outstanding.
Actually, inbox zero can have an adverse effect – by making you feel guilty, making you feel disorganised when it’s not achieved. Given that it’s only a very temporary state, why obsess about achieving it and then get disenchanted when more emails arrive, something that is guaranteed to happen. Instead, try focus on your to do list and not be plagued by inbox perfection. Better you have in place a plan to deal with what’s outstanding – the lack of a plan will be more disturbing than knowing there are unread emails in your inbox.
So treat inbox zero as a journey, getting into a routine to remove much of the stress that comes with a full inbox. Shift your focus onto a system to deal with your emails and forget trying to hit inbox zero.
A few words about CompassAir
Creating solutions for the global maritime sector, CompassAir develops state of the art messaging and business application software designed to maximise ROI. Our software is used across the sector, including by Sale and Purchase brokers (S&P/SnP), Chartering brokers, Owners, Managers and Operators.
Through its shipping and shipbroking clients, ranging from recognised World leaders through to the smallest, most dynamic independent companies, CompassAir has a significant presence in the major maritime centres throughout Europe, the US and Asia.
Our flagship solution is designed to simplify collaboration for teams within and across continents, allowing access to group mailboxes at astounding speed using tools that remove the stress from handling thousands of emails a day. It can be cloud based or on premise. To find out more contact email@example.com. If you are new to shipping, or just want to find out more about this exciting and challenging sector, the CompassAirShipping Guide might prove to be an interesting read.
Contact us for more information or a short demonstration on how CompassAir can benefit your business, and find out how we can help your teams improve collaboration and increase productivity.