My road to “Inbox Zero”

My out of office message in on, my inbox is empty ...
Image by Solen Feyissa from Pixabay

My out of office message is on, my inbox is empty ... and mesmerised by Microsoft's floating balloon animation, I thought of writing about how I got here.

Keeping up with all the information, requests for action and questions that flow into our email inboxes often seems a losing battle, but it doesn’t have to be so. It is increasingly common to see colleagues share their victory over the deluge of messages by reaching “Inbox Zero” and it is something I have improved my ability to do over the past couple of years.  I don’t always get to zero every day or week, but I can often get to below 10 messages to deal with, and even hit zero from time to time. My method is similar to that adopted by others, but I thought of documenting it here as a way for me to refer to it in the future, and also in case it helps others.

The PhDComic "Unread e-mails" gives a good illustration of the mindsets of different groups of people with respect to their inboxes. With the proviso that most of them had been opened and read, for the longest time I sat firmly on the right hand side of this scale - I perfected the art of using the search tools of my email client to find what I needed and carried on with zen-like indifference about having over 35K emails sitting in my inbox.  In some ways my approach to dealing with the email was a bit like the way Dirk Gently used to navigate (see Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency") - just get going and follow any car because you'll at least end up somewhere you were supposed to be last week - or in my case, I might not deal with the emails I needed to get to at a given time, but I'd process some I was supposed to handle previously.

In early 2019, I realised this was no longer working for me - I wasn't able to get things done because of the distraction of coming across other emails I needed to deal with.  I started feeling overwhelmed and my inbox started having a detrimental effect on my mental health. It was time to get a handle on things.  So with the help of a course on "Getting Things Done", expertly facilitated by Miles Seecharan from Next Action Associates, I took the following steps on the road to "Inbox Zero"

Step 1: Sort out the past - archiving history - I sorted my inbox in reverse chronological order and stared paging down the list, just taking in the author and subject of the emails.  As I was doing this, I kept the question "Would I be comfortable in deleting these emails?" in my mind.  After a while, I hit a point where I felt able to say "Yes" to most of the emails on the screen (this happened to be when I got to emails that were ~3 months old).  At this point I simply took all the older emails and filed them in a folder "Archive - To be clarified".  In one fell swoop, my 35K+ emails was less than 5K :-)

Step 2: Sort out the past - file and delete - I sorted the remaining emails by sender and was able to file large batches by different topics (e.g., emails from each of my PhD students were quickly filed in separate folders, those from project collaborators could go in a relevant folders for each project and so on).  Along the way, I found lots of emails that could be deleted too. After completing this process, I was down to less than 500 emails, most of them less than a month old!

Step 3: Clarifying the inbox - this is a practice drawn from Dave Allen's "Getting Things Done" approach, where I take each item in my inbox and decide whether there is a next action possible based on it. For example, it may be necessary to answer a question about my availability for a meeting, or provide a document that is being requested. Some items have no action because they have been sent for information, or they are simply spam.  Of course, the cardinal rule was to not put anything back in the inbox and before long I got to "Inbox Zero" :-) The full decision process is as follows:

The tasks in the 'next action' branch of the decision process are followed by either deleting or filing the email, thus taking it out of my inbox.  Much of my 'reference' email gets handled by automatic filtering rules which picks up mailing list subscriptions and similar emails that I rarely need to deal with urgently. As a result the core of my clarifying practice came down to the 'Four Ds': Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Delete it.  

Step 4: Maintain the practice - this is probably both the easiest and hardest bit, but it essentially involves making Step 3 a regular practice.  Once I was processing my inbox on a regular basis, I realised it was easy to do as long as I kept up a regular practice of clarifying things as they arrived.  I found that even on a day where I received 80-100 emails, I could get down to less than 20 with 45-60 minutes of clarifying.  The hard bit was maintaining the practice of doing this regularly enough. My approach has been to be relaxed about getting to zero - but making sure to have some time for clarifying my inbox at least 2-3 times a week.  This approach means I don't get stressed about not getting through everything, but can hit "Inbox Zero" at the end of some weeks, or when I am about to go on leave.

So, the four steps above summarise my road to "Inbox Zero". The only additional thing I do when I am away from work for any period of time is to set a email rule that filters all incoming mail into a 'Leave Backlog' folder and an out of office message that reads along the lines of "Your email will be filed in my ‘backlog’ folder, which I will work through as time permits on my return. You may wish to email me again after <return date>." This allows me to return to work without having a massive backlog of emails to work through in my inbox, and I can schedule some time over the week (or weeks, depending on how long I've been away), to work through and clarify the backlog folder.

Oh, by the way, if you're wondering what happened to the 30K+ emails I archived in Step 1 - I've never looked at them since!


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