A huge part of entrepreneurial success is humility, and I know that I still have a lot to learn. There is one arena, however, in which I can confidently say I’ve reached a certain level of mastery. That arena is my inbox. This post is the first in a series that will help you control every aspect of your PC Postal Service. We will go over a gravy train of methods, but the first is the only one that is absolutely non-negotiable.
Empty your damned inbox.
This proverb is by no means proprietary. Business and productivity gurus like David Allen, Tim Ferriss, and Merlin Mann all preach the importance of keeping on top of your email. Searching “inbox zero” on Google at the moment of this writing yields well over 400,000 results. So why the big deal?
There is a LOT of important information sent back and forth via email in the B2B world. It’s madness not to have a reliable system in place to organize it all. The haphazard method of trying to juggle thousands of messages with flags, sorting, and “Mark as Unread” is dangerous. The inbox’s job is to be a holding area, which means that it should be regularly emptied. Beginning this purging can seem daunting, but I promise you’ll be surprised at how quickly it will go.
Disclaimer: most of these methods are based on David Allen’s GTD method. Depending on the nature of your business, there are variants that may be better suited to your needs, but inbox zero is a strongly held theme. Once you get there, you can alter how you manage your mail going forward.
Step one is to create the right email ecosystem. For now, this means adding three sub-folders in your inbox. These folders will be Action, Archive, and Waiting. If you already have other folders for special projects or senders, leave them there, but make sure these new three are top-level folders within your inbox.
Step two is to start processing. If your inbox counter looks anything like the one above, processing is going to feel a little bit like this:
It’s like what they say about eating an elephant. Every single email in your inbox is going to be A) dealt with immediately, B) put in one of your three inbox folders, or C) deleted.
- First, you figure out if there’s anything that needs to be done about that email. Is there any action that you need to take before you can write that email off your mind and forget about it? No? Then it goes to one of three places:
- The Archive folder: Just keeping it for reference.
- The Waiting folder: You’ll be taking an action on this email eventually, but not until a certain date. Or maybe not until you get information from someone else.
- The Trash: Get it TF outta here.
- If there IS an action you need to complete, figure out how long it will take.
- Any action that will take less than two minutes you should complete immediately. If the action is “remember that Jim’s birthday is 10/11,” enter the date in his contact information right away. Then, archive or trash the email.
- For actionable emails that will take longer than 2 minutes, you will either defer them (put them in your Action folder to be handled later) or delegate them (send them to someone else and put it in your Waiting folder until it’s been taken care of).
For those of us who learn things better by looking at them, I put together a flow chart of how I organize my life’s information. Here is the email branch.
The process itself is simple, but be prepared to spend a few hours getting to the bottom. A few tips to keep in mind:
- Begin sorting by sender. If you get lots of solicitation emails like I do, you can safely assume that every email from them can be deleted.
- Select/highlight the first email from the sender
- Scroll to their last email
- Hit the Shift key and select that last email
- This should highlight all of their emails and allow you to batch delete. This can help get rid of hundreds of emails at once.
- Acting on a <2 minute email immediately is important to keep from overwhelming your Action folder, but keep in mind that 2 minutes is just 120 seconds. It’s easy to underestimate how long tasks will take before you get started. Getting pulled off course to handle a complicated email can be distracting and discouraging.
- If possible, this project should be done on a weekend, evening, or workday that you’ve blocked off as unavailable. Interruptions aren’t good for any focused project.
- If there’s a specific date that an email in your Waiting folder will become actionable, put it on your calendar to remind you.
It really is as simple as taking your inbox one bite at a time. Some habits are best formed over time. With a system like email, your only real option is cold turkey. So block off a few hours this week, put on some good music, and get that inbox to zero, even if it takes more than one session. The next post will address ongoing inbox management and how to keep it beautiful – meet you there!