Maximize your productivity
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By Teri Grant
This article will take ~9 minutes to read.
How many times have you wished your email inbox was at zero? Have you watched the emails streaming in, and wished that you could just hit pause so that you could catch up on your important to-dos instead of chasing email messages like a dog chasing its tail?
I did. I was frustrated with how many emails I had, and how it felt like I was wasting the best parts of my day just trying to keep up. It was easy for tasks to get missed, or for important responses to get delayed, all because I didn’t have a system for my email inbox
I wanted to have my email inbox at zero that the end of every work day, without having to spend hours wading through an impossible mess. I knew I needed a simple, effective system to sort and manage my email.
What I did to reduce my email inbox to zero
Changing one critical thing about my approach to my email inbox changed everything about how I was able to do my job. Almost overnight, I had more time for my actual projects, was more effective, and responded faster than I ever was able to before.
Did I stay locked onto my email 24/7? Nope. In fact, I didn’t ever check my email when I wasn’t at work, unless it was for a very specific, pre-determined reason. So how was it possible for me to spend less time on email and be more effective at it?
I set a non-negotiable ‘inbox at zero’ rule.
Before the screaming outcry about how “it’s impossible!”, let me emphasize, unequivocally, that this was the single most effective and efficient productivity decision that I have ever made. Period.
I was able to handle hundreds of emails each day, and leave work with an empty inbox. It IS possible – and here’s how:
Emails – both read and unread – sitting in your inbox are slowing you down like a backpack full of bricks would slow down a marathon runner. The first step of getting your email inbox to zero is to use every excuse possible to put things into a folder and out of your inbox. The best way to do that? Make as many folders as possible.
Every project you work on or department you liaise with should have a folder. Every portfolio under your responsibility should have a folder, and lots of subfolders for any regular task or large-scale event/activity you take on. Fall in love with folders and sub-folders. Get it out of sight and out of mind in a folder where you can access it whenever you need to.
Does the thought of coming up with these folder categories and subcategories seem overwhelming when you look at your overflowing inbox?
No problem. Just start with the very next email that you get.
Do you have a folder for it already? If not, make one. Right away. Continue this process with each email you get, and take five minutes each day to do a quick scroll through your inbox to see if any other emails could be filed in the same folder. Repeat this process until all of your old emails are filed away.
If you’ve got thousands of emails in your inbox and you’d like to just start fresh, create an ‘Archive’ folder and copy all of your emails over into it (once you’ve added any to-dos to your to-do list). Now you have a tabula rasa to setup exactly as you’d like, starting with the very next email that comes in.
2. Bounce it, toss it, or list it
If it takes less than two minutes, do it right away. If it takes longer, make a plan for it.
Bounce it: do you need the input of someone else before moving forward with an action item? Send that email right away – and then file the original email in the appropriate folder.
Toss it: do you need to keep it? If not, delete it right away. Be ruthless! If you need to keep it, or if deleting makes you feel nervous, file it in the appropriate folder. Do NOT let it sit around in your inbox taking up precious space just because you ‘might read it later’. If you don’t truly care about the quarterly social e-newsletter from HR, DELETE IT.
List it: if you can’t bounce it or toss it, put it on your to-do list. File it in the appropriate folder immediately, and then note down the folder location on your Quadrant Daily To-Do List next to the task item. You can come back to it when you are ready to, and in the meantime you aren’t wasting mental energy trying to account for a to-do task in two places. Not using the Quadrant Daily To-Do List system yet? Sign up to the free email from Be Productive At Work that teaches you how.
I cannot over emphasize this: your inbox should never double as a second to-do list. Be kind to your brain, and keep your list of tasks all in one place.
3. Check your email a set number of times each day – and NO MORE
The temptation can be strong to keep your email open all day, or to keep clicking back to it. Here’s the truth you need to tell yourself right now: there will always be an email on its way to you.
And you know what? That is okay.
It can wait another 45 minutes until your scheduled check-in time, and it will benefit from your clear frame of mind as you set aside dedicated time to focus on the message rather than jumping frenetically from task to task.
It’s entirely up to you how many times each day you should check. I encourage you to think about how many times you would like to check – and then make your goal a little less frequent than your original assessment. Chances are good that you won’t even notice the difference once you work it into your daily routine.
My own approach was the following: Sunday evening I took 5 minutes to scan the items that had come in over the weekend, and to remind myself of what I was scheduled for on Monday. Monday through Friday I scanned for 5 minutes before leaving the house for work, and then checked at 8:30am, 10:30am, 2pm, and at half-an-hour before I left work for the day.
If I had an urgent project or was engaged in a time-sensitive conversation over email, I would check more frequently – but that was an exception. I did not check my email between the end of my workday on Friday and Sunday evening.
I also disabled any automatic pop-ups that would notify me of new email. These are productivity destroyers – you can remove them from your email too by clicking the appropriate box in Settings.
4. Start and Finish intentionally
I want to zoom in for a moment on the beginning and the end of the day. These are crucial bookends that should not be overlooked in the pursuit of the zero email inbox.
There are lots of folks out there that will tell you that you should never check your email when you first get to your desk – but frankly that strategy just doesn’t work well for many office environments. It’s time to rewrite that old wives’ tale.
Things come up after hours, and need to be accounted for at the start of the day. But once that morning window has past, it’s time to step away from email and get working hard on something substantial.
Don’t fall into the trap of letting yourself procrastinate in your email – get cracking on the important stuff that made you want to apply for your job in the first place!
At the end of the day, always be sure to set aside some time to Bounce it, Toss it, List it. In this last part of your day, only Bounce those things which you are able to do very quickly and easily. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to add a Bounce item to your Quadrant Daily To-Do List for tomorrow. It will still be there, and you’ll be able to be your most effective self when you tackle it.
A quick review of how to manage your email inbox to zero
Use every excuse possible to put things into a folder and out of your inbox.
2. Bounce it, toss it, or list it:
Bounce it: send that email right away – and then file the original email in the appropriate folder.
Toss it: do you need to keep it? If not, delete it right away. Be ruthless!
List it: if you can’t bounce it or toss it, put it on your to-do list. Sign up for the Quadrant To-Do List free tutorial.
3. Check your email a set number of times each day, and no more
Choose how many times you would like to check – and stick to it.
4. Start and finish intentionally
Things come up after hours, and need to be accounted for at the start of the day. At the end of the day, always be sure to set aside some time to Bounce it, Toss it, List it.
Make a plan: What does your email inbox look like right now? What is your gut feeling when you think about it? Which of these four techniques could you try out that would make a difference this week? Pick one – and do it right now. Don’t wait!
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I'm excited to share my simple strategy for phenomenal productivity and keeping my email inbox at zero. Even if you've never met a to-do list that you liked, you can astound everyone with what you can accomplish - and how relaxed you are.