An Inbox Zero Approach

I’ve had it on my task list to post a note about how I do email for quite a while now. I’ve decided to go ahead and get the article written and post it for some time over the weekend while I’m out running around San Francisco/San Jose. That’ll give you something to read while I’m out enjoying… something. Like I can see into the future or something.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of Merlin Mann and That’s no secret, but what you may not know is that I actually have had little time to catch up on what Merlin and his gang preach. I’ve heard of Inbox Zero and I’ve heard of GTD, but it dawned on me that I already employed most of these practices in my every day work. At least, I think so. I don’t really know since I’ve just not read that stuff.

So what I’m going to give you here is my own version of Inbox Zero. If it happens to be what Merlin preaches, awesome.

Once a coworker asked me how it was that I never forgot to answer an email. She also wondered how I kept the Inbox so clean on my email.

I’ll tell you right now – this was born out of necessity. If my Inbox has tens… hundreds… or thousands of messages… read and unread… I can tell you right now with a very high degree of authority that my brain will fucking explode. There’s something about having a pile of email in my inbox that makes me feel like my life is so unsettled that I absolutely, positively cannot move forward with my life until there is some peace to it.

Some of you are likely saying that it’s just a problem I have – or an excuse. I don’t know, you could be right. But I’ll wave this carrot in your face. It’s really damn rare that I forget to answer an email and I make damn sure my answers are as timely and informative as possible.

How does this happen?

It starts with realizing that about 85% of your email in the Inbox is just passing conversation. Most of your Inbox is full of messages that aren’t even addressed directly to you. Most of the messages are passing conversations. A passing conversation is one that you’re included on but just via CC: or BCC: if it’s really juicy. Those messages just need to be read… nay, not even read… scanned. Just scan them. Scan them and your brain will pick up on the important parts. What’s crucial though is that after you’ve scanned it, MOVE IT. Get it out of your inbox. File it away by dragging it to a folder with a subject-relevant name. Don’t wait to do this – do it now. NOW. YES NOW.

If you run across an email that you’re directly addressed and has some information that provokes a response from you, that’s great. Don’t respond now. Just read enough of an email to make that decision:

…do I need to respond to this or read it more thoroughly or…

…is this a passing conversation?

If it’s a passing conversation, file it.

If it’s something that requires you to respond OR read more thoroughly, FLAG IT and MOVE ON.

Keep working through each individual email from oldest to newest until you’ve made this first and most crucial decision on each email in your inbox. If you’ve filed away a high percentage of your emails and flagged more, that’s fine. What you want to do is end up with a collection of emails that are flagged for your attention.

The next pass on your email is just as easy. Now you need to go through your email and decide… is this part of a conversation that is being tracked? If so, follow netiquette and find the latest communique on the thread in question. Keep that message. Unflag the rest and file them away. You want to only respond to the latest message in the thread. Nothing is more irritating than someone who reads a thread days later and responds somewhere in the middle, thereby creating a branch of the conversation that didn’t need to exist.

The third and final pass on your email is the hardest and most time consuming. Take the time to sit and analyze each message closely from oldest to newest. As you respond, send the message, then unflag your Inbox copy and file it away before moving to the next message. Do this until your inbox is down to nothing.

Following this method, you will never lose track of an email conversation or action again.

Well, you might want to lose track of the action. That’s a personal choice.

To review…

1st pass:

…quickly scan each email from oldest to newest and decide:

…am I cc’d and just a member of this passing conversation?

…or does this message require deeper mental processing?

…if yes, you’re just a member in passing convo, file it

…if not:

…flag message for followup and move on.

1st pass goal: eliminate 75% of email from inbox.

2nd pass:

…quickly scan each email from oldest to newest and decide:

…is there a later development in this conversation that I need to look at?

…if yes, unflag message and file it.

…if no, this message is the one you will respond to. Stop.

2nd pass goal: eliminate another 5-10% of your email from inbox.

3rd pass:

…start from oldest to newest. Read and respond.

…After responding, UNFLAG message and FILE IT IMMEDIATELY.


3rd pass goal: eliminate remaining messages to reach 100% disposition of messages.

There you have it. Hope it helps.

Oh yeah, and don’t use your Desktop folder for anything except the file you’re working on. When done with the file, file it and get it off your desktop.

Another free tip. Love me. I’m here for you. To be loved. I like love.