How To Be An Email Inbox Ninja!

How many emails do you receive each day? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? How many are currently sitting in your Inbox folder? I heard of someone with over thirty thousand! No matter how busy you are, there’s a “ninja” Self-Improvement technique you can use to avoid email overwhelm… 

Inbox Zero

photo credit: Ashley Sturgis (licence)


Why you can’t ignore it

Be honest: how many emails are currently sitting in your Inbox staring at you every time you open it? What starts as a handful can easily become dozens or hundreds and in extreme cases even thousands! And there’s the problem: once the stack gets too big, you don’t know where to start. Sooner or later the important messages that you urgently need to deal with start to get lost among less important ones (and SPAM emails, too). If you are going to handle email effectively, you need a method to deal with it promptly.

I have tried various systems for handling email, but one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of time-saving, efficiency, effective communication and productivity. It’s called “Inbox Zero”.

Simple but not easy?

The principle of Inbox Zero is simple: you empty your Inbox completely at least once a day. No exceptions. No excuses. Every last one is cleared out.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s not that easy, right? Well, yes and no. Dealing with all the different types of email you might receive (and the various actions they will trigger) might require quite a complicated system, depending on your circumstances. But once you put a system in place, it can be easy, I promise. Here are some practical tips to help you achieve Inbox Zero…

Making it work

  • Email exclusion: use good filters
    Most email clients have quite effective SPAM filters built in, saving you from much of the dross that finds its way to your email address. But it’s worth considering using any additional filters and mail rules offered by your software; you can easily remove unwanted mail containing particular keywords or from particular senders. Excluding emails from your Inbox before you even see them is a good start to achieving Inbox Zero.
  • Email deletion: cull carefully but ruthlessly
    Some people find it easy to delete emails without opening them, just by scanning the Subject line and Sender. I’ve even heard of busy executives who delete all but the most important emails on the basis that “if it’s important they’ll send it to me again”. I confess I’m not that ruthless: I would be too afraid of missing something! But get into the habit of scanning and skim-reading quickly to assess whether an email is worthy of your attention. If you receive multiple emails from the same senders, sorting by Sender rather than by Date can speed up the process (delete all those Facebook update emails in one hit.) Every time you hit Delete you get one step closer to Inbox Zero.
  • Email processing: just do it
    As David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) suggests, if you can respond to an email completely within a couple of minutes, then just do it and get it out of the way. Then you can then either delete the email or move it to a different system for later reference. Just don’t leave it in your Inbox! Having your system clogged up with unactioned emails is bad enough, but leaving the actioned ones in there as well is just plain crazy and you’ll never get to Inbox Zero! Create a new folder and move it across, or send it to a filing system like Evernote. (If you have an Evernote account you get a special email address to which you can forward an email and it will automatically be added as a note in Evernote. This useful feature saves me hours every month)
  • Email forwarding: delegate it
    Not your department? Forward it straight on so that it’s someone else’s problem, not yours. And don’t leave it in your Inbox! Delete it or file it away. Let it stop someone else from achieving Inbox Zero, not you.
  • Email filing: defer it
    Some emails are slippery, tricky little monkeys. You know the ones: a job you need to do, but not yet; something you need to remember later, but not now; information you don’t understand and you need to research or get advice on. These little chaps are often the biggest obstacle to Inbox Zero. Having an effective filing and retrieval system, together with a well-managed calendar and To Do list are very important: with these in place you will easily identify exactly where to put these emails so that they are in front of you when you need them to be. And that ‘where’ is never your Inbox! To be truly productive you have to be able to handle all inputs, not just the regular ones. You don’t have to look any further than Google Calendar to get a good appointment and reminder system on just about any platform. If you need a good task manager, take a look at Nozbe. It’s easily the best one I’ve tried and I use it every day of my life for both home and work.
  • Email checking: once or twice a day is enough
    Implementing Inbox Zero means that when you open your email program, you can easily see what’s new. But don’t try and empty it every 30 minutes! I have a friend (with OCD) who checks her email every 5 to 10 minutes. This is not a good Self-Improvement technique! See my post about task batching.

What’s the point?

So why implement Inbox Zero anyway? Isn’t it a lot of work when you should just be doing…well, work?

In fact, it saves time. Or at least that has been my experience since I implemented Inbox Zero about a year ago. I have found that:

  • nothing on my email system is older than 24 hours, giving me a really up-to-date view on incoming matters
  • when I open my email client, the much-reduced number of visible emails makes me feel much less overwhelmed (even though I’m actually handling exactly the same amount of mail as before)
  • every single day, at least once, I get to see a completely empty email screen. Until you’ve experienced that, you will have no idea how refreshing it is! That great moment when you hit Delete for the last email and then…relax. Wonderful.

Take Action

Are you suffering from email overwhelm? Do you have actioned and unactioned emails in the same Inbox? Give Inbox Zero a try. It might take an initial “hit” of hard work to empty it for the first time, but the feelings of refreshment, clarity and achievement are well worth the effort.

Do you already use Inbox Zero or “something close”? How have you found it? Which emails are the hardest to get clear? And how does it feel when you do? Let me know in the comments. Or drop me an email: I promise it won’t be in my Inbox for long… 


To our continued Self-Improvement and success!

David Hendra
The Self-Improvement Guy


1 Comment

  1. I’m good at deleting emails I have no intention of reading.

    I still keep a few things in my inbox that I want to go back to.

    The awkward thing is monitoring multiple email addresses.

    Smart phones are great for this.

    Regards Carl

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