Advertising
Advertising

How I Achieved Inbox Zero in 4 Steps

How I Achieved Inbox Zero in 4 Steps

I love email. I can be hooked to my inbox all day on my trusty smartphone — and therefore, I love my smartphone too!

But I was not always an email-lover. Three and a half years ago, when I was working at a day job, I barely felt the need to check my email. Only after I started on my entrepreneurial journey, did I begin holding my emails dear. I am a blogger, a freelance writer, an editor, a behavioral coach and an online marketer. I am also religious about responding to every message I possibly can.

If you’re an entrepreneur too, and wondering what is it with us and email, you’re not alone. To me, email is the gateway to opportunities, an exchange of stellar ideas, or a chance to help a budding job-quitter blaze the right trail. That said, at times, email has become my worst enemy. For one, my partner has “caught” me checking and responding to messages on my phone in bed. At other times, my inbox has been the sole reason I’ve had near-zero productivity for hours.

There was an urgent need to manage my inbox (it counted 41,377 at the time!) and keep it clean.

So, I subscribed to the Inbox Zero practice, where every day each item in your inbox must be moved to the archives, trash or some other folder.

Here are the four simple hacks I used to do it, and you can too:

Advertising

1. Be Generous With Deleting Email

I was talking to Aymeric, founder of Weekplan.net, and asked him how he maintained his sanity and kept his inbox clean all the time. Aymeric was kind enough to give me his top tip, but also honest to reveal that he only recently hit Inbox Zero (which is pretty hard).

His number one tip? Be generous with email deletion.

I have a confession to make: I used to save each and every email, thinking I may need it sometime in future. May be it is a Cancerian trait or something, but I certainly was not deleting generously.

Then Einstein spoke to me: Psst…”the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Of course! Here I was expecting to achieve Inbox Zero and yet doing the same ol’, same ol’. Once I took Einstein’s advice, changed my ways and hit DELETE, things became more manageable.

A word of caution: You can go and delete everything in your inbox, followed by a momentary sigh of relief, only to be attacked by panic shortly thereafter. So don’t be a blind deleting machine — delete smartly. The best way I’ve found for smart deletion is to have folders or labels (or whatever you prefer). You can also choose a label and delete it entirely without touching other messages.

Advertising

For example, in 2009, when I started my freelance writing business, I subscribed to loads of newsletters that helped freelancers. I labeled them as “Blogging stuff”, “Freelance writing”, “Follow up blog emails” etc.

In hindsight, I admit my labeling skills were below par, but they served the purpose. Today I’ve come a long way and don’t need beginner tips anymore. So I hit DELETE and killed these labels in a heartbeat.

2. Unsubscribe Ruthlessly

And I mean ruthlessly. In the last few weeks, I have unsubscribed from 60% of the newsletters I don’t need any more. That was a relief because I didn’t have to keep working at cleaning up the mess.

Not only that, having put the effort into unsubscribing so much in the past few days, I kept the habit of subscribing in check.

I can sometimes suffer from the shiny-object syndrome. I think we all do. When I saw a new website, a cool app, or found a nice blog, I wanted to subscribe to them. And let’s not forget, I loved collecting and filing away the freebies people give away on their websites!

So, I became mindful of subscribing. Just before hitting “submit”, I asked myself: Do I really need this service/e-book/subscription? The keyword here is “need” versus “want”.

Advertising

It’s amazing how most of the time the answer was a resounding, “No”.

3. Ask Smart Questions First

One of my first blogs was in the area of freelance writing where I shared writing tips and tricks with other freelancers. I received a lot of email from fellow and budding writers sharing their thoughts, and at times, asking for help. Of course, being who I was, I took time and religiously replied to every email. Then it started getting a little too much because I was spending a lot of time writing long replies to a dozen questions that a newbie had packed into just one email. At times, the answer would be already available on my blog or the Net. The sender had not done their research.

So I came up with a few ninja questions:

  • Can this wait? If yes, move to “Follow up” label. If no, ask the next question.
  • Does this really require my attention? If no, move to Archives/Trash. If yes, ask the next question.
  •  Can I direct them to a resource instead? If yes, send the resource link and move to Archives/Trash. If no, ask the next question.
  • Am I ever going to respond/refer to this? If no, then move to Trash. If yes, respond in less than 5-sentences, move to Archives/Trash and get it done.

4. Be OK If You Don’t Achieve Inbox Zero Literally

I must admit, the first time I saw my inbox size go down from 41,377 to 0, I felt a little lonely. It was as if I was left in the Australian bush all on my own. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to really do Inbox Zero.

Yikes!

When I received a new email, I tried wiping its existence off the surface of my inbox. But it hurt me a little more. If Inbox Zero was the bush, a thriving, overflowing inbox was the city. And I’ve always been a city gal.

Advertising

I continued to keep my inbox empty for the next few days, but the sombre feeling wouldn’t go away. Then I looked online to see if other people were feeling the same uneasiness inside and bumped into Jeff Bercovici’s Inbox 50.

What a relief! Jeff probably describes the feeling much better than I do. He writes, “To do Inbox Zero, you have to like Inbox Zero.”

How true. To do the bush, I must like it first. Which I don’t right now.

So my point? It’s OK if you cannot survive the zilch. I’ve found the mid-way in Inbox 50-100. You can find it in Inbox 80, or Inbox 20. Take your pick. So long it doesn’t get back to Inbox 41,377!

Your Thoughts?

Would you ever try to achieve Inbox Zero? Or have you already? Love to hear your thoughts!

More by this author

start an online business 8 Tools to Start an Online Business without Breaking the Bank Resume tools 4 Easy Resume Tools to Breathe Life into Your Resume and Boost Your Chances of Getting Hired starting your own business 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting an Online Business Resume Rejected Was Your Resume Rejected? Here’s What to Do Next 3 Things To Do If You Fear A 3-Step Process to Overcome Fear

Trending in Productivity

1 How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated 2 How Self Care Can Help You Live Your Best Life 3 How to Develop Mental Toughness to Help You Stay Strong 4 How to Calm Down When You’re Stressed and Anxious 5 How to Reinvent Yourself And Redefine Your Future

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

Advertising

In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

Advertising

2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

Advertising

When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

Advertising

One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

Read Next