I get several hundred e-mails a day, so I laughed the first time I heard the term “Inbox Zero.”
It took me about a week to totally clear out my inbox, but boy, did it feel good once I did.
With my inbox clear, I started following blogger Merlin Mann's advice on e-mail management, and I've been able to keep an empty inbox by treating it like a game. Every new e-mail is like a hostile invader that I must deal with right away, which is essentially the gist of Inbox Zero. Stop merely “checking” your e-mail, and start “processing” it.
Processing methods will vary, but Mann suggests having an action you can apply to each new e-mail. His are: delete/archive, delegate, respond, defer and do.
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“The thing you don't do is just let it sit around without a reason,” Mann said in a 2007 speech about Inbox Zero, which is posted on his Web site. “Because that's when the procrastination starts.”
An action could be entering the details of an e-mail invitation to a party on your calendar, setting a reminder and deleting the message. Or taking a few minutes to reply to a colleague's question.
Once your inbox is empty, you don't have to check e-mail as often, and Mann says you could do “e-mail dashes” once every hour, but that may not work for everyone.
Consolidate your personal folders so it only takes a few seconds to decide where to archive a message. If you use Outlook, download the free Xobni plug-in, which has an incredible search function that reduces the need for lots of folders with detailed names.
You may not be able to act on every e-mail right away, but deferring a message so you can act on it later won't do you any good if you don't remember to revisit those deferred items on a regular basis. Otherwise, it's the equivalent of cleaning your room by stuffing everything under the bed or in a closet.
This is where the father of Inbox Zero – a series of productivity principles known as “Getting Things Done” or “GTD” to geeks – comes into play. Getting Things Done was first outlined by David Allen in his 2001 book of the same name.
Just as having e-mails in your inbox that you have not acted on makes it harder to get things done, so, too, does having things on your mind that you need to accomplish. Regardless of whether it's a big thing (finishing a major project for work) or a little thing (remembering to buy batteries), Allen says that if you keep all of these things on your mind, your mind will remind you about them at inopportune times, making it harder to focus on the task at hand.
So whenever something you have to do pops into your mind, deal with it in a fashion similar to how you process e-mails. Take that task or goal, figure out what actions are needed to make it happen, and write them down in a place where you will remember to look when it's time to act.