5 tricks to keeping your email inbox at zero

Many busy folks have problems with email these days. Some announce email bankruptcy. I've always managed to have my email inbox very close to zero. I've blogged about email before and even recorded a few video shows, too. But for the last few weeks I've finally managed to keep email inbox at zero consistently every single day. Here's how:

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1. Keep the emails short and stop being so polite

I use to treat emails with respect. With the whole structure like "Hello, Best Regards, etc." - now I don't think about this anymore. I found out that people appreciated more a short response earlier… than a long and pretty one a lot later… if ever.

Leo Babauta wrote about it in his post and he said his emails are now max 5 sentences long.

I still like the formal structure of the email so I use Typinator on my Mac and when I write "brm" it converts to "Best regards, - Michael" (and many similar abbreviations) - so my emails are both short and pretty :-)

2. Apply the 2-minute rule

If I can reply to an email shortly in just 2 minutes, I do it right away… and what I found out is that most of the emails can be replied like this. So combine this rule with the one before. Keep it short, quick and reply as soon as you can.

3. Just one folder - "Reply"

I just use one folder in my email program (the cool new Mail.app in Mac OSX Lion) and it's "Reply" and it stores the messages I need to devote more time to.

I try to keep this folder really small and zero it out at the end of the day. As only very few messages go there, it's not really hard to schedule half an hour at the end of the day to zero it out.

4. Forward emails to your task/project system

I forward my actionable emails to Nozbe and convert them to tasks with a comment containing email content (it's really easy to do and there is even an action script for it).

This way the email messages are zeroed out and I'll reply later when the time comes to take action. It's really inefficient to keep emails as "to-do reminders" in the inbox.

5. Schedule your email time, turn off notifications

I don't use Email notifications. I even removed the "unread" badge from my Mail.app client. I go to email when I choose to do email (and now with full-screen apps in Lion it's even cooler). I do email 2-3 times a day. That's it. I try to never start a day with my email. Only get to it when I've already done 2-3 hours of productive work.

That's it. These easy techniques helped me keep my inbox at zero and keep my mind sane.

What are your tricks in dealing with email? How do you manage the emails coming in?

I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of Nozbe.com - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 (email,productivity)

Robert Pańkowski
Jul 28, 2011 15:43
That's exactly the advice I give to my Clients and I actually just limit myself to process email once a day.
Michael Sliwinski
Jul 28, 2011 16:08
People still need to fight the compulsive MUST to check email as often as possible and stop letting others set their schedules and focus on their stuff. Especially this is crazy with Blackberry users. And most of apps have auto-notifications set up by default. Thanks for your comments and support Robert!
RC (Chris) Lopez
Jul 28, 2011 16:26
Checking e-mail once or twice a day is a fine approach, but it only works if you can actually get away with it. For example, I work in IT support. If i limited myself to checking e-mail once a day, i would be out of a job pretty quick. The key, in such a case, is to 1) break the "urge" to reply immediately, unless it is TRULY necessary, and, more to the point, 2) develop a habit/method/process for quickly determining when immediate response is required and when it isn't.
Robert Pańkowski
Jul 28, 2011 16:32
Chris there is big a difference when checking and responding to email is your actual job. For most people it isn't, it's just one of many ways to communicate and while people sit all day on Gmail - work is waiting on the desk to be done.

I used to work in IT support and I know what you mean. Yes, it's good to have a system - answer typical or FAQ questions in 2 minutes and then process in batches. It's also useful to setup an automatic responder saying "we received your inquiry and will respond ASAP".

Michael Sliwinski
Jul 28, 2011 21:21
It's not only about the frequency of checking email but also about all these other tricks I mentioned (and many more I mentioned earlier) - some folks check every hour (because their work requires it), I check 2-3 times a day, sometimes more often - the key is to find your sweet spot and make sure you have time for your creative work and don't get distracted by email so easily. Thanks for a great discussion Chris and Robert!