Inbox Zero. There really is no other way is there ?!
I have been doing a version of this since my company first gave us MS Mail some 20 or so years ago. I guess is always seemed obvious to me and fitted with my personal sense of organisation. I still look at people who have thousands of e-mails in their inbox and hundreds unread and think “never mind mind like water – how do you sleep at night ?!”
Some of this was forced on me by our company’s IM policy for many years. The allowed inbox size was quite limited and even if you got it to zero before you went for a weeks vacation, if anyone sent you any large files or sets of product photos, you would come back to an inbox that was full, had been made inactive until you reduced its size and was full of automated e-mails from the system, sent every hour, to tell you it was over size. How did that ever help with limited server space ?!
However I did leave some e-mails in my inbox as reminders to take some action or respond to them which is not good. As someone wrote recently – your inbox is not a good to do list, it is just a list of things people want you to do that you haven’t had time to do yet and all in the wrong order. Anything left in your inbox means that you repeatedly open it, think about it, close it, go and do something else and then come back to it and repeat those steps; until you either get round to dealing with it or decide it’s been so long that you can ignore it after all. Not an effective use of time.
GOLDEN RULE #1 – ONLY EVER TOUCH ANYTHING IN YOUR INBOX ONCE.
Either answer it the first time you open it, delete it, file it or put it into your system for action later on.
Soon I was practicing something close to Inbox Zero but still doing something wrong or perhaps just less ideal.
I would file all my e-mails into a detailed file structure of main folders, sub folders, sub-sub folders and so on. All in pst files on my laptop hard disk. This meant I got them out of my inbox, got the IM dept off my case and had them all exactly where I could find them. But did I file that last one by customer, project, product, people involved etc ?!
Also, I could only find them when I was on my laptop. Plus pst files have a limited size so each quarter some maintenance and archiving was needed on a Sunday afternoon and then some backing up weekly on a hard disk drive and each quarter onto DVDs for data security. Also I couldn’t see them on my BlackBerry or iPad and when I was on either of these devices whilst I could open, read and respond to e-mails, I couldn’t file them properly into my system until I was back at my laptop.
Still this was the system that served me well for many years and had several colleagues comment how organised I was, meant my Inbox was usually empty or close to and I had peace of mind. It was a continuous labour of love, there was no way I could let them stack up, it played on my mind when I was on vacation – how overloaded would that inbox be when I got back ? We can probably all remember the days before wireless and broadband, arriving at a hotel on business and the first priority was to figure out how to get that dial up working to download your e-mails received since you left home, even if it meant taking the bedside phone apart to get your modem connected ! Or was that just me ?
Then comes Office365 and OneDrive and the Cloud and an almost unlimited e-mail inbox size.
This allowed me to set up a folder called “archive” to put everything into plus a few special folders for further attention (to-do, waiting for, files to save, to read/review) which all effectively live on-line beside my inbox.
So I can move e-mails directly to archive quickly from iPad or BlackBerry, flagging them first if necessary, so that they show in a follow-up search folder, as well as using a quick-link in Outlook to do the same thing, hitting one button and sending multiple e-mails there in one go. I can also see what has been filed on all my devices. Filing e-mails and getting to Inbox Zero is suddenly much quicker, needs less thought and a few key words in a search and there they are. It also doesn’t have to wait until I get to my laptop for it to happen properly.
GOLDEN RULE #2 – DON’T BE GOOD AT FILING, GET GOOD AT SEARCHING.
This is probably the reason for writing most of this post and not stopping after the first line, as this is a recent (last month) revelation for me after all these years of thinking that I had it all under control. Moving from my massive list of folders to one “archive” bucket was a nervous time for me but has worked out fine with only positives so far. It makes getting to Inbox Zero faster and easier.
At some point I will do the same for all my file folders with all my documents, as the same logic applies about better searches being available on our desk tops.
But one step at a time !
On a similar subject – here are a few extra Outlook tips to help with productivity and InBox Zero that can help with that context if Outlook is your only weapon, as Outlook allows you to set a few rules:
– Make anything urgent that you are on the TO line of show in red.
Some people still think everything they send is urgent but sometimes it is.
– Make anything just to you alone show in blue. More likely to be relevant if it is just between you and one other person, rather than being a blanket circular with a big distribution.
– Make anything that is a reply to something you originally sent show in purple.
Could be that information you were waiting for or go ahead on an idea that is in your “Waiting For” folder and could legitimately change your focus for the day.
– Some people like putting any e-mail they are cc’ed on into a separate cc inbox (which they often forget or check less frequently) but I find that a risky policy. Too many people still don’t address their e-mails properly and expect an action from someone only on cc.