Here's a simple system to get control of your e-mail inbox -- and your life. Inbox Zero philosophy keeps messages manageable and increases your productivity.
How is that possible when I, like millions of cubicle dwellers across America, get literally thousands of emails per month?
It's a philosophy called Inbox Zero. It's a solution to the overwhelmed, out-of-control feeling that a jammed inbox invokes.
Granted, my inbox of eight emails is not zero. But that's the nature of living the Inbox Zero life; it's more an aspiration than an up-to-the-minute reality.
But with a mostly clean inbox, I feel more organized and less stressed by the daily email avalanche, maybe because I know nothing is getting missed. And I'm not even very good at Inbox Zero, being a relative newbie of just nine months on the program.
Ben Rady, 34, a software engineer in Chicago, is better at it, subscribing to the philosophy since 2006.
He's unequivocal: Inbox Zero saved his career. "There's no doubt in my mind that my career would be nowhere near where it is now if I had not done this or something like it. I needed to make a big change," he said.
Rady, who says he has a terrible memory and was disorganized, had just gotten a job as a consultant and was overwhelmed by the logistics of arranging meetings with clients and managing travel itineraries, in addition to the programming he was doing. His email was a central problem.
"I couldn't handle it," he said. "I had to get organized or I would have been fired." He went on to excel at his career and to write a book and teach classes on the side.
"A lot of people think it's impossible," Rady said of regularly reducing his inbox to zero. "I get the reaction sometimes, 'Why would you take the time to do that?' The whole reason I do it is to save time."
The basic idea of Inbox Zero is to use the inbox as a triage space for doing something with email, not as a repository. With a new email, you might delete it or move it to a folder.
For example, I received an email about an in-house social media seminar that I should attend. I noted the date and time on my calendar and deleted the email because I'll never need it again. I harvested all the useful information from it, leaving a useless husk.
As an airline-industry reporter, I also received a stock analyst report on United Airlines with possible useful information. Without reading it, I moved it to a folder called "Airline story fodder." I'm not writing about United Airlines today, but I might need it soon. I also write a personal finance column, so when I get a news release about smart use of coupons, I move it to a folder, again without reading it. When I write a column about coupons, I can just search for the keyword "coupon" to find all the emailed news releases I need.
The point is to act on email as you "process" it in batches. Leaving messages in the inbox is frowned upon.
So, Inbox Zero doesn't mean you don't keep old emails, it means they're not in your inbox where they're a constant energy- and attention-sucking distraction.
As InboxZero.com says, "That zero? It's not how many messages are in your inbox — it's how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don't want it to be."
Inbox Zero is not particularly new, especially among productivity gurus. Its origin is attributed to Merlin Mann, founder of productivity website 43Folders.com, who, in turn, cites inspiration from David Allen, author of the book "Getting Things Done."
Productivity consultant Jan Wencel, of Naperville, founder of Life Contained, is a strict adherent to Inbox Zero, but she doesn't push it on her clients. "I advocate finding a rhythm that works for them, and that's not always an Inbox Zero," she said.
Cases in point are Kristy Gagoff and Donna Dorsey who both work in the human resources department at truck-maker Navistar in Lisle. Gagoff uses Inbox Zero. Dorsey? Not so much.
Wencel said the difference among clients is typically how often they processes the inbox to zero, whether once a day or once a week, instead of processing to zero every time they look at their inbox, as hard-core users advocate.
Some people will leave a few emails in the inbox. They represent tasks to do in the near term, today or tomorrow. Tasks deferred longer more properly belong on a to-do list or project list.
Gagoff, 37, a human resources manager Navistar, said she gets her inbox to zero about once every two weeks, despite receiving 150 to 200 emails each workday. More often, she has eight to 15 emails in her inbox related to things she's actively working on.
"A lot of people have tons of emails in their inbox. For me, that doesn't work," she said. Instead, keeping her inbox relatively clean gives her a sense of control and accomplishment." It makes me feel like I haven't dropped the ball on anything," she said. "If I had hundreds of emails in my inbox, I might question whether I responded to some people." She said she finds it "shocking" when colleagues say they haven't responded to her email because it's buried among thousands of messages in their inbox.
Her colleagues are equally shocked when they find her inbox is near or at zero. "They think it's crazy, actually," she said. "But it's a system that works for me." One recent Friday, she emailed a screen shot of her cleaned inbox to fellow Navistar workers also striving for Inbox Zero. "It's become a little competition at work," she said.
Dorsey, vice president of human resources for business operations at Navistar, is Gagoff's boss and also worked with Wencel. But she does not strive for Inbox Zero, although she will sometimes get down to "one page of emails," which she estimates to be about 40 messages. She instead focuses on maintaining a good task list.
"Everyone appreciates a more productive life, but how you accomplish that can be different," Dorsey said. "The biggest thing for me was not to be obsessed with having Inbox Zero, because that was stressful to me. You don't want to create more stress."
Says Gagoff, "At the end of the day, we're both very well-organized, but we have very different systems."
So, Inbox Zero — or customized versions of it — saves time and helps efficiency. But its deeper benefits go to the root of our most basic emotions: fear, anxiety, trust, control. They are the feelings that a jammed inbox can create and a better system for dealing with email can alleviate.
Of course, that sounds totally hokey. This is, after all, only email, right?
"I think for a lot of people it is emotional," Wencel said. "When they open their inbox, they hold their breath."
Not Rady; not anymore. Once a slave to email, he's now master of it.
"I would say it's almost purely an emotional tool," he said. "That's almost entirely the benefit."
Another check of my Outlook program shows my inbox now has 16 inhabitants. No worries, I'll process that sucker to zero in no tim
Inbox Zero tips
Ultimately, you'll have to develop a version of Inbox Zero that works for you, but here are some tips:
Delete: A key to Inbox Zero is literally a key: the Delete key. If deleting makes you nervous, it shouldn't. With almost all email systems, deleted emails are really just moved to a trash folder, where they could be reclaimed if needed. "If you've already read it, get it out of your line of sight because it's just going to keep distracting you," Rady said.
OHIO: Another key is the acronym OHIO, for only handle it once. After you open an email, do something with it. Do not close the message window without deleting it or moving it out of your inbox. "You want to make that decision the first time you read that email," Rady said. Many emails can be made into items that belong on a to-do list or calendar. For me, that's the Remember The Milk online to-do list and Microsoft Outlook calendar synced with my phone.
Be purposeful: Check email less often. Wencel says you shouldn't "fidget" in your email program. "Only go there when you're ready to add value," she said. If you need to focus, consider closing your email program, or at least turning off new-mail notifications.
Reduce: Any way you can limit emails to your inbox is a good idea. Unsubscribe to email newsletters and advertisements you don't want, use automatic filters that route certain emails to certain folders and label spam as junk.
Search: Email search tools are better than they used to be. So you don't need an elaborate folder system in order to find them later. The most aggressive Inbox Zero systems might only have one folder, perhaps called "archive," as Gmail calls it. Incoming emails get either deleted or archived. You retrieve archived emails later with a search tool, not by scrolling through hundreds of them. The inbox is preserved for only processing new email.
The Microsoft Outlook search is notoriously slow, but add-on software search tools can help. I use Xobni, an Outlook plug-in. Other search tools Wencel recommends are Copernic Desktop Search and X1.
Getting started: Watch a 2007 online video of Merlin Mann explaining Inbox Zero to Google employees at inboxzero.com/video. More broadly, many advocates, including Mann, point to the self-help book "Getting Things Done" by David Allen.
If you have hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, get a fresh start. Move all of them into a folder — as per Mann's suggestion, I called it DMZ, for demilitarized zone — and then begin Inbox Zero from this moment forward. You can go back to process DMZ emails as you have time. As Mann says, "Before you can get good, you have to stop sucking."