Why Inbox Zero Is Price It and Simpler Than You Assume

Do you remember when email was supposed to make life easier for office workers? Yes, that turned out good.

The main complaint I hear in my business efficiency advisory work is that everyone spends too much time emailing. And they’re right – studies have shown the average civil servant spends 2.5 hours a day reading and replying to an average of 200 emails, 144 of which are not relevant to their job.

Because of this, email is one of the first things I recommend to optimize in any company I work with.

There are many ways to manage your email inbox. However, the method described here is unique in that you can reduce the time it takes to check your email while ensuring that nothing is lost or falls through the cracks. I personally have used this method for years and have implemented it with hundreds of teams in my business efficiency consulting. Many of them have told me that they have cut the time they spend on email more than half and saved three to five hours per week per team member.

Here’s how – and why – it works.

What is Inbox Zero?

The email management system I recommend is called Inbox Zero and it’s all about deleting emails from your inbox with the goal of keeping emails out of sight. And when I say “Zero E-Mails Visible” I mean that – this is not “Unread Zero” and it is an important distinction.

The typical goal with email is to hit “unread zero”, but there are some problems with that mindset. Emails marked as read will still appear in your inbox. Whether you notice it or not, every time you open your inbox, you are wasting precious brain power browsing those emails. It also makes it difficult to distinguish between emails that have actually been processed and those that have simply been “read”. And so things fall through the cracks.

With Inbox Zero, you can quickly and efficiently process any email that gets into your inbox. Once it’s done, it’s out of sight and out of your mind – which means you can get back to working on the important things without having emails in mind.

Learn to archive

If you’re like most people, your inbox is made up of thousands of emails, most of which have already been read or edited and are no longer relevant. The first step in getting to Inbox Zero is to take care of those irrelevant emails.

I recommend archiving all emails older than 30 days first. To do this in Gmail, just search for “older than: 30d”, select all of them and hit “Archive” (in Outlook you can use the formula “received”:

Now we have to deal with the remaining emails.

The RAD system

When an email hits your inbox, there are three things you can do: reply to it, archive it, or move it. I like to refer to these actions as the RAD system.

If you’ve been keeping track and have just archived all of your emails that are older than 30 days, there are likely a few hundred in your inbox that are less than 30 days old. Start by working through these with RAD

If the email warrants a reply, reply to it and archive the email. Your work is done here so you don’t need to keep this email. When someone replies, it will reappear in your inbox.

If the email does not warrant a response or is not required, archive it. You can access it later at any time using the search function.

If the email is not relevant right now but you need to refer to it at a later time, consider moving it to a later date when it is relevant. In Gmail, you can do this by “snoozing” the email, and in Outlook you can use the Boomerang plugin. (Let’s say you have a meeting next week and someone sends you directions to the office. Snooze the email until the day of the meeting and it will appear in your inbox that morning.)

Reach and manage Inbox Zero

The RAD system allows you to efficiently process all the emails in your inbox. After getting into Inbox Zero for the first time and seeing your empty inbox for the first time, you’ll want to use the same method every time you check your email.

And while the ultimate goal is to hit inbox zero every time you check your email, it’s by no means a hard and fast rule. Realistically, an inbox should contain fewer than 20 emails at the same time – with the aim of processing them by the end of the day.

However you use this method, the goal is always the same – make your email work for you, not against you.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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