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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:

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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