Hitting the elusive Inbox Zero with email has always been an interesting topic for me. On one hand, email is a fantastic tool. On the other hand, literally nobody seems to understand the rules of the game.
When email was first created, we didn’t have an “email problem”. It wasn’t until advertising dug into email marketing and Crackberries becoming as common as your toothbrush did things start to spiral out of control.
As is with most technologies, understanding how they are designed is important.
Personally, I’ve never had a terrible time achieving Inbox Zero on a daily basis. My methodology has certainly evolved over time as new tools became available.
Below I’ll share what tools I use to make life easier and the methodology that will put email back in its place; a simple tool with a simple job.
Deciding What App to Use
Simply put, there is no one email app or tool that will solve all of your problems. Email is a human behavior problem, not a technology problem. Once we can accept this as reality, our views on email quickly change.
Simply using the default Gmail application is plenty in most cases, including mine. I choose to use Spark because of a few small features like Snoozing an email and having multiple inboxes in one view.
When faced with the massive decision fatigue that is choosing an email application you should focus on a few variables:
1. Is the application free?
Applications that have a cost are not bad by any means, but you need something you can quickly jump in and out of for testing. You never want to find yourself stuck in a paid application only to realize it’s missing a major feature.
2. Does it have basic features?
By basic features, I don’t mean sending and receiving emails. I mean the ability to Snooze emails, Add comments (mainly for work related emails), and “Template” responses, which we’ll talk more about later.
3. Is it cross-platform?
We are a multi-device species. In a given day I may handle emails on my iPhone, my Macbook Pro or my iPad Pro. Regardless of the device, I want to easily apply my methodology without fail.
If you’re still dealing with decision fatigue, give Spark a try as it hits all of the criteria above and even works with Siri Shortcuts for added automation features.
My Inbox Zero Methodology
It’s a bold claim to say that I have a methodology that will allow you to hit Inbox Zero daily but the reality is that’s easier than you would think. In fact, I hit Inbox Zero within 10-15 minutes most days.
As a quick aside, this is not my original work. I’m pulling from different mentors and frameworks that I’ve learned from over the years and I’ll mention them within each applicable section as a reference if you want to dive deeper into any area.
1. Your inbox is not a task list
At some point in the last 10-15 years we decided that other people could walk into our lives and tell us what to do. I’m not talking about our bosses or clients but literally anyone. It’s as if we’ve given a key to our home to anyone who asks. That’s a brief description of how humans subconsciously view email and it’s terribly wrong.
Your Inbox is a waiting room where other people bid for your attention. Your first task is to quickly decide who is worth your attention and who isn’t.
By shifting your view of email as a waiting room, rather than a task list, you’ll begin to view each email more critically.
2. It’s an Inheritance Problem
To continue on point one, not only do we view each email as a task but we also view it as a task that should be completed immediately. At what point did we agree that email is above all sacred?
Like any other task item that comes into your life, email needs to be prioritized relative to every other task and project currently on your list.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If an email takes less than 2-minutes to respond to, do it. Otherwise, add it to your task list. I personally use the Todoist integration with Spark, which allows me to add a new task item to Todoist without leaving Spark, including a link to the email.
Overall, I follow the Getting Things Done methodology by David Allen, using my Todoist “Inbox” to dump anything that comes my way. Once there, I can then add each task to its appropriate Project, decide if it’s a high or medium priority, and when it should get done.
I would highly recommend that you watch a video by Tiago Forte to better understand how I clear my inbox and add emails as tasks.
Fun fact, emails do not require you to respond within 24 hours unless previously agreed upon by both parties, such as a client as an example.
Here’s another guide on how I use Todoist in my Nerdy Planning System.
3. Cutting the Garbage Out
Most emails (90%+) hitting your Inbox are not worth your time. We all know this but it’s time to revoke access. A simple method is to unsubscribe from newsletters.
I use three methods (in order) for handling newsletters:
- Create a Gmail filter that moves any email whose body contains the word “unsubscribe” to a new Folder, skipping the Inbox entirely of course, named “Optional”
- Actually unsubscribe from newsletters you want to stop receiving by clicking the unsubscribe link one-by-one or forwarding them to Unsubscribe Robot to do it for you
- Lastly, use a tool like Unroll.me to receive just one email per day containing all of the newsletters you do what to see.
The above process quickly frees up your Inbox, deletes the crap, continues to do so over time, and allows you to check one email per day for the X number you still want to view.
That is how you quickly streamline your Inbox and begin focusing on the emails that truly require your attention.
4. Applying the 3 D’s
What’s left over from step 3 are emails worth our attention. Or, more precisely, they are from actual humans wanting our specific attention.
As mentioned in step 2, we shouldn’t simply start replying to each email one-by-one. For many this may sound odd. Rather than scheduling time to sit down, filtering my emails, and then reply to each one, I only do the filtering step.
Simply put, I move from one email to the next and make a single decision; Do, Delegate or Delete. By Do I mean there is an action to be taken.
If an email can be deleted, I quickly do that.
If an email needs to be delegated to a team member, I quickly forward the email to that person.
If an email requires me to respond in-full, review something or take an action of any kind, I add it to my Todoist Inbox to be prioritized relative to every other task. When an email is added to my Todoist Inbox, I also Archive that email. It’s not deleted but it’s out of my sight and will be reopened using the link that Todoist added to the task.
I see too many people leaving emails in their Inbox as a reminder to do something or as a task list. Your email Inbox is not a task list. A task list is a task list.
I first learned about the 3 D’s from Ari Meisel.
5. Using Templates for Standard Responses
I’m naturally an automation dork but sometimes you need a third party to validate your thoughts on a given topic. I’m a firm believer in SOPs and standardizing your work to streamline the entire process.
Most emails seem to follow a pattern. It’s a common question you get from clients or team members. It’s a family member asking for your address or your girlfriends name for the 14th time in a row. Either way, creating Template responses can save you a large amount of time when it comes to handling your email.
A Template Response is a well thought out response to a specific question that is saved and used repeatedly.
Template Responses have been around for a while now, including the Canned Responses in the Gmail application, but one book really put this into perspective for me. Here’s a brief excerpt…
I get requests like this practically every day, and for every one, I would have no time left to do anything else. Of course, I could hire an assistant just to handle all of those incoming requests, but why? Instead, for each one of these things, I spend a little time crafting the perfect response, and then I use that response over and over again.Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt
In other words, stop repeating yourself. Solve the problem once and put your solution to good use.
Your time is far more important than rewriting the same email over and over again. Only for the quality of that response to go down with each rewrite, losing valuable quality. Instead, take time to write a thoughtful response and use it each time, putting your email partly on auto-pilot.
6. Stop Manually Scheduling Meetings
One thing that is a major pet-peeve is wasting time going back and forth to schedule a meeting. Believe it or not, there are tools that are very cheap, if not free, that allow you to hand off this task to a computer.
One I apply very heavily is Calendly, which uses a single link for easy scheduling. You send your link to the person you want to schedule a meeting with and they will only see the time slots available on your calendar, ensuring no back-and-forth and no double-booking, and on days/slots you want to make available.
With this type of scheduling system, you not only put scheduling on auto-pilot, you take control of it.
Where things start to get really fun is through combining a Template Response with a scheduling link to save even more time. I personally have 15, and 30 minute meeting links, each saved as a Template Response that can be fired off with two little clicks.
Here’s an example of what that scheduling email looks like:
7. Setting Barriers for Your Email
Unless dealing with clients or generating revenue, emails are not something that needs to be handled now. Instead, create barriers for who can and cannot get through the gates. Being a startup founder means a massive increase of emails from marketing companies, business development people, and many others. Just because someone sent you an email does not mean you’re required to respond back.
Be ruthless in your pursuit for finding emails that actually add value. As the founder of Superhuman said, “A fun little game I like to play is where is the work?” This wonderfully illustrates how insane email can become.
8. You Do Not Need an Assistant to Manage Your Email
If you need to hire another human to manage your email, you’re only shifting the problem to them. First Principles would dictate that you solve the actual problem first. I know it makes you feel more important to have an Executive Assistant managing your email but it’s an utter waste of human potential. Instead, solve the real problem and hire someone for a more important role, something worthy of human hours.
What’s the Future of Email?
I obviously cannot tell you what the future holds for email. What I can tell you is how it’s evolving. Companies like Superhuman and Heyy are wanting to shift how we interact with email as a communication tool.
Rather than solving the problem with new features, Superhuman applies game design and theory to its users, teaching them better email habits. Heyy has specifically attempted to redesign the email experience as a whole, hoping to create email 2.0.
Will any of this catch on? I’m not sure. However, I am very confident that we have the necessary mechanics and methodologies to negate the Email Problem now.