It seems like a cruel joke, doesn’t it?
If you’re anything like me – and I bet you are – you receive more email than you know what to do with. In the days before writing this post, I received hundreds of emails. I have eight separate email addresses, and those are just the ones I can remember. The chance of me managing my emails under these circumstances is almost zero unless I utilise a robust email management system.
Sound familiar? What if I told you that you could regain control?
I can show you how to get your email inbox to zero every day.
You just need to follow the steps in my guide to email management and be disciplined.
The Email Problem
I’m not about to suggest you go off email altogether. Many productivity experts will recommend leading a revolution within your organisation and moving to Slack.
This isn’t practical for me. I can’t change the culture of my workplace, a hospital that employs something like 6000 people. It is impractical to suggest moving to Slack.
Email as a communication tool isn’t going away anytime soon, and certainly not in my workplace!
If we accept this, we need to consider ways to improve our experience of email. Because hundreds or thousands of emails a week is a quick way to become bogged down in other peoples’ priorities.
That’s what an email is, after all. It is someone else demanding your time and attention. It doesn’t have to be assigning you a task or requesting a meeting. Every email requires you to decide what it means to you.
And every decision we need to make leads to less headspace for concentrating on what is important to us.
The scope of the problem with email is so great that email management has become an industry in itself. There are tools and webinars, apps and courses. Trust me: I’ve signed up for a few!
What is Inbox Zero?
Merlin Mann originally coined the phrase to describe the amount of attention you should be focusing on your inbox.
That “zero”? It’s not how many messages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. – Merlin Mann 1
I have embedded a fantastic Inbox Zero video presentation Mann gave at Google in 2007 below. He explains his conceptualisation for email and its role in his life, as well as his approach to email management. Yes, it’s ten years old – a lifetime in internet years – but the principles are timeless.
Consider watching it and then continue reading.
Note that Inbox Zero doesn’t mean you have an empty inbox using the Merlin Mann definition. This has become the modern definition that many people will be assuming when they talk about Inbox Zero and email management.
Having zero emails left in your inbox is an amazing feeling when it happens. However, it is counter-productive to have a system that encourages you to feel guilty if there are emails left. The goal should be to optimise your email processing strategy such that you minimise time spent on managing your email.
I’ll also provide a checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
I’ll also provide a checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
Inbox Zero Step 1: Eliminate
The best long-term strategy for reducing the time spent in your inbox is to reduce the amount of email you receive.
While that might seem like common sense, this step is so crucial that it bears repeating (or tweeting!).
Why is this step so important?
Consider how long it takes you to read the subject line of an individual email, decide whether to open it or not and then click delete. Let’s assume it takes you 10 seconds. Now consider how many emails you receive each day that you just delete without opening.
(I recently checked my email clients to work out how many emails I had processed in this way, and I am too embarrassed to admit the true number!)
If we estimate that you receive 45 such emails each day, you will spend 7.5 minutes each day just deleting emails that you don’t even open.
That’s 52.5 minutes every week – almost an hour!
This works out to 2737.5 minutes per year, a whole 45.6 hours! That is an entire working week every year that you could free up.
What could you achieve with an extra week every year?
But stop, you say, I’m a keyboard shortcuts ninja, and I can process each email in five short seconds. How do an extra 22.8 hours each year sound? That’s half a work week!
Hack your Email Tip 1: Search the Trash
Assuming you use Gmail you can easily find out how many unread messages you have processed.
Go to the search bar while in your Gmail inbox and paste the following:
in:trash is:unread after:2017/08/28 before:2017/08/29
Go ahead and change the dates if you like, just make them consecutive.
Now, use the handy calculator I created below. Enter the number of emails you’ve deleted without opening and your estimate for how long it takes you to process each of them (in seconds). The calculator will show you how much time you might save just by reducing the flow of emails that you don’t even open.
Email Time Savings Calculator
Once you have worked out what the scope of your problem is, you can start to make informed decisions moving forward.
Examine the list of emails that you have deleted without opening. How many of them are newsletters or subscriptions to mailing lists? What is the amount of time you could save with this one tip?
Hack your Email Tip 2: Unsubscribe
Remember that search we used in Gmail earlier? What would happen if we added “unsubscribe” to that search? Or some other synonymous terms?
in:trash is:unread after:2017/08/28 before:2017/08/29 unsubscribe OR opt-out OR “opt out” OR “mail preferences” OR “email preferences” OR “manage notifications” OR “manage your notifications” OR “manage alerts” OR “alert preferences”
Try it out.
What should happen is that you will see a shorter list of emails, but they are much more likely to be mailing lists or newsletters.
Why does this work? The CAN-SPAM Act requires commercial email to allow consumers the ability to opt-out of future email. The Spam Act in Australia requires the same thing. Thus, all newsletters and mailing lists should have an unsubscribe link.
The link is often at the bottom of the email. Open a few of those deleted emails and look for it.
Now, go through and consider whether you want to stay subscribed to that service or not. If you don’t think it’s adding much value, unsubscribe!
Although it might seem this step is taking a while, you are investing in your future self. Every one of those emails that you unsubscribe from means that every time that company or mailing list sends a new email you save another 5-10 seconds.
As I said in my commentary on Procrastinate on Purpose:
The investment of time now to improve a system, workflow or automation reaps the reward of increased time later.
Hack your Email Tip 3: Unsubscribe redux
There are commercial services that can do all of this for you: one well-known service is Unroll.me. They received a lot of negative press earlier this year when it turned out they were selling user data. Many people were rightly outraged, although what they were doing is in their terms of service.
If you don’t want to offer unfettered access to your data to the highest bidder, there is an open-source script that could help (if you’re using Gmail).
Follow the instructions written by well-known Google Apps hacker Amit Agarwal. What you’ll be doing is copying a Google Sheet into your Google Drive.
Once you’ve copied it into your account, click on the ‘Gmail Unsubscriber’ button in the menu at the right side. Grant the sheet access to your Gmail account, and then set-up an ‘Unsubscribe’ label in Gmail.
The script will check your Gmail account every 15 minutes for new emails with the label Unsubscribe. When it finds one, the script will attempt to unsubscribe you from further emails.
To use it, just assign the ‘Unsubscribe’ label to any emails from which you wish to unsubscribe, and the script will do the rest. You can even do this in bulk – just label multiple messages as Unsubscribe.
You’ll end up with the sheet showing all the emails it has unsubscribed you from in case you ever need to check.
Eliminate: Other Email Clients
All three of those tips apply to Gmail, as the search functions within Gmail are fantastic. (As you’d expect from a company which first came to prominence as a search engine.) You can modify these suggestions to deal with other email providers as follows.
Microsoft Outlook – click into Deleted Items and search for:
unsubscribe read:no AND received:>=28/8/17 AND received:<=29/8/17
Windows Live Hotmail:
unsubscribe before:”2017/8/28″ after:”2017/8/29″
Unsubscribing from mailing lists and newsletters that are no longer of value to you is just dealing with the low hanging fruit. After eliminating, the next step is to consolidate your email in as few inboxes as possible.
Inbox Zero Step 2: Consolidate
Remember those eight email addresses I mentioned earlier? How many do you have?
It is harder to be efficient when you have to manage multiple email accounts. I would encourage you to simplify if you can. If you’re not using an account, close it. If you can’t remember the last time you got an email at that address, close it.
What if you don’t want to close your account? You have two options:
- Use an email client that allows you to manage multiple email accounts
- Set up a forwarding arrangement so that all your email ends up in one inbox
I use a combination of both of these approaches.
Hack your Email Tip 4: Get mobile
In my opinion, the best way to process your email quickly is to do it on a mobile device.
Many Android or iOS apps will allow you to setup import from Gmail, Outlook, Exchange Server and other email services. Centralising is the best way to manage multiple email accounts while on-the-go.
My favourite of these apps is Newton Mail (formerly known as CloudMagic). I have set it up such that I can see all of my email accounts in my Newton interface.
I can choose to view all of my emails in a massive combined inbox. My preferred option is to keep emails from different accounts separate, however, as this allows me to ignore work email on weekends but keep using my personal accounts.
When looking for such an app try to find one that allows you to send as if you’re in the account’s native app. In other words, if you’re looking at an email in your Gmail account and want to respond, the recipient will get an email from your Gmail address.
I will be discussing mobile apps and Newton more in the Process section.
Hack your Email Tip 5: Import / Export
You can set up Gmail (and many other webmail applications) to import email from your other accounts. You can even grant Gmail access to the other account’s servers so that email will appear to have come from the other account. (i.e. I send the email from within the Gmail interface, but it seems to have come from my productivephysician.com address.)
I only use this feature for my webmail services. These include an old Hotmail account, a Yahoo account, and the email accounts associated with this website and another website I develop.
Although this step is slightly technical, it isn’t all that hard for someone savvy enough to be reading this website!
Import from other accounts
The first step is to open the settings in your Gmail account. Look at the top right of the screen in your web browser for the small gear (cog) icon with the drop-down arrow beside it.
Click the gear and choose Settings from the menu that appears. The settings screen will appear, and you need to select ‘Accounts and Import’.
Find the section labelled ‘Check mail from other accounts:’ and click the text link ‘Add a mail account’.
A new window will pop-up and appear something like this:
Add the email address from which you wish to import and click Next. The pop-up window will change. You will see the option to use ‘Gmailify’ or POP3 depending on the account from which you’re importing.
If Gmailify is available, this will allow you to send as if from the original account. If only POP3 is available, you will be importing emails only at this stage. Click Next and the screen will change again.
You now need to enter your email account details. Enter your username and password.
You can obtain the POP Server address and Port from your email account provider or by a quick Google search.
Click Add Account and the process should finish.
Send via other accounts
If you can’t use Gmailify for your account and are stuck using POP3, you can still set up Gmail to send from your other account.
Go back to the Accounts and Import page and find ‘Send mail as:’. Another window will pop up asking for the Name you wish to send email as and the email address.
Add your details and click on Next Step. You will now need to enter your SMTP settings. Again, you can get these from your email account provider or Google.
Add your account, and you should now be able to choose to send email from that account from within Gmail!
After eliminating as much incoming email as possible and consolidating your email inboxes into as few as possible, the next step is delegation.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf.
Inbox Zero Step 3: Delegate
Many productivity buffs will suggest you employ a virtual assistant (VA) to process your email for you.
Of course, this is one way in which you could reduce your time spent in email. However, I am not yet at the point of trusting someone else with the keys to my online world. So much of our lives is now managed through email. Just think of the number of account activation emails and receipts you receive and consider the potential for identity theft.
As a doctor, I also receive sensitive material via email from time-to-time. This isn’t something I encourage, as many email clients aren’t fully secure.
In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) outlines an extensive array of protections to ensure sensitive health information isn’t inadvertently released to third parties. Although this doesn’t apply to me (the Australian equivalent does!), health professionals need to understand their local privacy laws when considering the safe use of electronic communications.
Utilise an Executive or Personal Assistant
One way in which you might consider delegation is if you are lucky enough to have a personal (PA) or executive assistant (EA).
Christina is the founder of Tips for Assistants, which is an online resource designed to give advice and resources to assistants and administrative professionals to help them to perform at the highest level. She has more than a decade of experience in a wide array of assistant roles. You can connect with Tips for Assistants on the following platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+.
For my first question to Christina, I wanted to clarify the types of tasks that an assistant might help their manager with. (Note that Christina writes in US English while I use British English.)
For someone just starting to work with an assistant, in what ways can an assistant help with email management?
The ways a manager utilizes their assistant’s support will vary and email management is no exception. For example, some people prefer for their assistant to reply to specific emails whereas others do not want their assistant to perform that function at all.
Assistants can sort emails into folders, set up rules, categorize emails and come up with more efficient email processing systems.
A lot of the time, email management overlaps with calendar management. Meeting requests end up in the same inbox and communication frequently occurs about those, so that is a related task that assistants tend to manage as well.
What are some of the most effective ways that an assistant can help manage email for the manager?
A strategic assistant would think of different perspectives when it comes to approaching email management. The assistant would think from the perspective of being on the defense (when they are working inside of their manager’s inbox) and the offense (when they are working outside of their manager’s inbox).
When the assistant is on the defense, there are numerous ways for them to keep the manager’s inbox organized, efficient and generally running in a way that aligns with their manager’s preferences. The key word is preferences; every manager will want their inbox overseen differently, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide.
Here are some general tips that can be personalized to fit the needs of the individual the assistant is supporting when they are on the defense:
- Discuss the current email management system
At a high-level, assistants that help with the email management task are actually acting as productivity managers to maintain a system that allows their managers to be as efficient as possible. The assistant needs to know what is working, what is not working, if there are any past systems that should be revisited and what the specific goals are.
- Determine how often the manager wants their inbox checked
Having baseline agreed upon times set up from the start ensures clear expectations. This is especially helpful when the assistant is managing multiple managers’ inboxes.
- Establish a folder system
The system is something that can either be established by the manager or by the assistant. If one has already been established, there might be a need to optimize the folders in place. The main aspects of a great folder system are that it is a living system, it’s uncomplicated and helps to maintain the manager’s inbox goals.
- Set up mail rules
The assistant can set up mail rules to help keep the manager’s inbox organized at an even faster pace. However, I have seen emails not part of the rules somehow wind up in a folder that they weren’t meant to go into. I recommend assistants monitor all folders and not assume that the rules are running 100% correctly on autopilot.
- Establish a labeling system
If there’s a system in place, the assistant should keep their eyes peeled for ways to keep it optimized. One element that should be considered when either setting up or establishing the labeling system is whether it will be used for assigning purposes. For example, a specific label could indicate if an email is assigned to either the assistant or the manager to take action on. Another element to consider is for sorting purposes. If the manager finds it helpful to reference emails by labels, then those types should be set up.
- Work to unsubscribe the manager from all email lists
It is easy for inboxes to get clogged up with junk emails so assistants can help to remove their manager off all (or some) email lists. Before unsubscribing, assistants should get permission from their manager to do so.
- Determine how to best respond to emails
When the assistant is new, it is important for the manager to outline what kinds of emails he/she expects them to either draft or directly reply to. After narrowing down the types of emails the assistant will be taking action on, the assistant can work with the manager to get a few templates or examples to refer to.
- Set up canned email responses
If the assistant or the manager find themselves writing the same responses over and over again, canned responses can be created to save time. All of those extra minutes add up over time!
There are ways in which the assistant can be effective on the offense when they are outside of their manager’s inbox as well:
- Work to move the manager to BCC whenever possible
Quite often the assistant is emailed communications that their manager is copied on. Instead of clicking ‘Reply All’, the assistant should take a moment to decide if it’s necessary to keep the person they are supporting on the email chain. This is especially the case when it comes to emails regarding calendaring; the manager doesn’t need to be copied on all the back and forth.
- Consolidate emails
The assistant should always work to consolidate emails that they are sending to their manager whenever possible; they should avoid sending one-off emails unless they are time sensitive or of high importance. What has worked for me is starting an email draft with non-urgent updates and sending it at the end of the day. You’d be amazed at how many one-off emails this practice saves! For an example of how to go about this process, check out my article here.
- Think through the email before copying the manager
I recommend assistants take a moment to decide if their manager needs to be copied before doing so. If the answer is yes, assistants should anticipate the questions the readers on the email might have and provide that information up front. Including all details from the get-go decreases the chance of additional follow up emails.
- Be concise and get to the point
Whenever assistants need to send emails to their managers it’s a good idea to avoid being wordy. If there’s no way around having bulky content, assistants can use bullets to ensure the email is well organized and easy to scan. To prevent ambiguity, assistants should proofread their emails to make sure their word choices are as clear as possible. Taking the time to do this avoids the need for clarifying questions (and ensuing emails) later on.
- Don’t compose an email
If the assistant knows he/she will be getting some face time with their manager soon, then any updates or questions could be discussed at that time.
Another way for assistants to be on the offense is to explore task management programs. These programs were not only designed to help manage tasks, but they have optimized team communication and resulted in reduced emails. I keep a master list of task management programs that I recommend here.
One final note about assistants being on the offense is for them to keep their eyes peeled for other apps that can help to declutter and optimize their manager’s inbox. For example, if the assistant notices that their manager’s inbox is inundated with constant back and forth emails about scheduling, they could take that as a cue to look into scheduling programs that could help to eliminate emails about that entirely. (I keep a great master list of calendaring apps here).
What are some of the potential risks when an assistant is helping with email, and how might they best be mitigated?
Unfortunately, there are some potential risks when an assistant is helping with email. The most crucial item I want to bring up is security. I do not recommend managers share their passwords for their primary email accounts with their assistant; that is what the email delegation feature was created for. The delegation feature gives the assistant all the access they need to do their job.
Trust is an important aspect of any relationship, and it takes time to establish. When the manager gives delegate access to their email account the assistant can preview a lot of information, which they are able to forward, download and save on their own computer. Some managers might not feel comfortable giving this kind of access right away.
There’s a creative solution for the manager to receive immediate help with email management without giving access to their main email account. The manager can set up a second email account and start forwarding emails to their assistant to manage there. This way their personal and sensitive emails are kept separate until they are ready to give delegate access to their main email account. Starting with an indirect approach gives time to build up trust before giving full access to all of their sensitive emails right off the bat.
Another risk is the assistant opening scam emails that the manager might normally delete. Unfortunately, hackers are learning how to craft more legit looking emails these days, so it’s important to make sure the assistant has a keen eye. The manager could send over a few articles for their assistant to read so they are aware of key identifiers to be on the lookout for. In addition, the manager should make sure their assistant’s computer is safeguarded with an antivirus program and firewall to help to protect against phishing scams.
Many of us have accidentally sent emails before we were finished composing them and there’s a chance that assistants might accidentally do this when composing emails on behalf of their manager as well. There are a few ways to mitigate this error. One way is for the assistant to delete all of the recipients off of the email draft until it is ready to be sent. The other way is a tip for Gmail users. If the manager has Gmail, the Undo Send feature can be turned on.
My last tip is for the manager to be diligent when articulating best practices with their assistant. It is a huge risk if the manager doesn’t communicate the necessary updates in order for their assistant to do their job well. If the manager doesn’t want their inbox managed poorly then any updates should be given to their assistant in a timely manner.
Do you perceive any risks with using a remote EA/PA (or VA) to assist with email? If so, what are they and how can they be reduced?
There is a risk if the manager is using an assistant outside of their organization because the assistant will be using their own personal computer to do the work. The manager should find out what antivirus program the assistant uses, if they use a firewall and if they use a VPN. Basically, the more information the manager knows about the security measures the assistant is taking to protect their sensitive information, the better protected their email account (and the rest of their personal information) will be.
If the assistant is outside of the manager’s organization, the manager might want to consider having them sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement). These are fairly common as part of the on-boarding process for many assistants, especially in personal settings. As I mentioned before, emails can easily be forwarded, downloaded and saved on the assistant’s computer. A lot of times companies do have guidelines in the employee handbook about keeping company information confidential. An NDA would act in a similar way to help the manager keep their personal information confidential.
What are any ‘best practices’ you advise? Standard operating procedures? Guidelines or agreements? Policies or procedures?
Ongoing communication is an essential part of a strong relationship between the manager and the assistant. There will be extra time needed for the manager to invest in communication upfront. In order for the assistant to learn all the manager’s preferences and to manage their inbox exactly how they would like it, that extra time spent communicating those preferences in the beginning is necessary.
The manager should prioritize weekly check-in meetings with their assistant as part of their commitment to ongoing communication. If these meetings have not been established, here is an article on the many reasons why they are important. In general, these meetings are a great time for both the assistant and manager to ask questions, to discuss feedback and for the assistant to get any pieces of information they had been waiting on to complete tasks related to email management.
The assistant should be recording all best practices, procedures and preferences in their job manual and there should be a dedicated chapter for email management. The manual should be kept in a place that the manager can access, preferably on a shared cloud drive. If the assistant has not started a job manual, I wrote an article on how to set up one of those binders here. All procedures and preferences should be included in the binder.
If a back-up ever needs to temporarily help with the email management task, then that chapter could be shared as a how-to guide to follow. Typically, processes will undergo a bit of tweaking over time when either the manager or the assistant notice ways to make improvements and the assistant should always be recording those. Whenever the manager notes a change in preferences, the assistant should record those as well. Essentially, the binder is a living reference for everyone.
Do you have any other ideas or concepts that you consider important when asking an assistant to help with email?
I want to throw out the notion of keeping three separate email accounts: a work email account, a personal email account and a miscellaneous email account. Most likely a manager won’t require an assistant to oversee their personal email, so keeping those emails separate allows for a bit of privacy. The miscellaneous email account is one that might need some email management, but would not be the main inbox to manage. The main function of that inbox would be for email subscriptions, newsletters and orders that might result in being placed on mailing lists. Basically, this inbox keeps the clutter out of the work and personal inboxes. The work email account would be the primary inbox that the assistant would manage. One person I assisted had this system and it made a lot of sense!
I want to end with the manager prioritizing open communication and encouraging the assistant to think outside of the (in)box. Just like the idea of looking into a task management program if one isn’t being used already, it’s important for the assistant to feel like he/she can come to the person they support with new ideas to try. Every email that comes in requires a decision and the more ways that can be reduced, the more time the assistant has to spend supporting the manager with other tasks.
I found Christina’s responses really helpful, and if I am ever lucky enough to have an assistant I will be referring back to them for guidance. Thanks, Christina!
Hack your Email Tip 6: Say Hello to Amy
If you don’t have an EA or PA and aren’t willing to use a VA, would you consider using AI?
There has been an explosion in AI in recent years, and one area that has benefited is scheduling meetings. The most well-known service is x.ai, but there are several others including Kono.
When you start using an AI assistant to schedule your meetings, you will need to grant them access to your calendar(s). Then you just need to cc your AI assistant on a meeting request email.
In this example, Amy from x.ai will carry out the emails on your behalf. (Amy is a bot, not a real person, and you can call her Andrew if you prefer a male AI assistant!) Amy will check your calendar and only offer times when you are free. Once a time is set, she will send a calendar invitation to both you and the other parties.
The long waiting list for access to their beta programme means that I haven’t had much chance to work with Amy at the time of writing (but I have been accepted, yay!). I have tried a couple of other, similar services. The feedback from my meeting guests was that the AI scheduling bot was often a little pushy. My colleagues found it somewhat confronting trying to schedule in this way.
Use a dedicated scheduling service
If you aren’t someone who would consider yourself an ‘early adopter’ you might be wary of giving an AI access to your calendar. There are several meeting scheduling services available that don’t work with AI.
Examples of these services include Acuity Scheduling and Calendly.
When you grant access to your calendar to one of these services, you will setup rules for when you will be available and when not, preferred days and locations, and preferred meeting duration. The service will then give you a link that you can give to people who wish to make a time to see you. When they go to that website link they will see when you are available and can select a time for themselves.
Many of these services allow you to request documentation, biographical information and other data that will be useful for the meeting. None of this requires you to be involved. As long as you setup rules to protect time that you don’t want to be scheduled, you won’t need to take part in the emails required to settle on a time and venue.
Now that you’ve eliminated and consolidated, and considered whether you could delegate, it’s time to explore how to automate.
Inbox Zero Step 4: Automate
Think about the emails you send each day. How many of them are variations on the same type of email?
If you’re like many people, you will find yourself sending many emails with similar content. Whether it’s responding to requests for information or answering frequently asked questions, did you ever consider whether you could automate the process?
I once heard a productivity guru state that if they ever typed the same email more than once, they considered whether it would be a good idea to save the email as a template. One of the best ways to create re-useable templated responses is a text expansion app like TextExpander.
Hack your Email Tip 7: Save your Snippets
TextExpander is available on Mac and iOS devices, and in 2016 Smile Software released a Windows version. I have been using the Windows version since release and fell in love.
The basic principle is that you assign a short series of characters that, when typed, trigger an expanded piece of text (snippet) to appear instead. The software works anywhere you can type text. This means that you don’t have to have different shortcuts for different apps.
So, for example, when I type ppfs (for ‘Productive Physician full site’ so it’s easy to remember) TextExpander replaces that text string with https://productivephysician.com. I use ppe to type my email address (‘Productive Physician email’).
Text expansion isn’t only useful for email. I have a variety of snippets set for medical terminology, as well as my personal details like phone number and address.
When it comes to email, however, you could use TextExpander to develop quite complicated text snippets. I have embedded a video below that demonstrates how using TextExpander could make your life in email easier.
Another way to produce reusable templates for common emails is to use ‘canned responses’.
Canned responses allow you to produce a text snippet or full email that you then save and reuse whenever it is applicable. The benefits are similar to the use of a text expansion utility like TextExpander. Their limitation is that you can only use them in the email service in which you create them.
Automating Frequently Asked Questions
One use for a text expansion application like TextExpander is to create reusable snippets of text that can act as the answer to questions you are frequently asked. You could type out a quick response yourself:
Thank you for your email. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to help you at the minute. Good luck getting the help you need.
Alternatively, you could use a snippet that contains what TextExpander calls ‘fill-ins’. When you trigger a snippet that has a fill-in a pop-up box will appear. You can, for example, enter the name and the subject and have the remainder of the email as above.
Fill in the person’s details in the fill-in fields.
Hi John. Thank you for your email about your speaking opportunity. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to help you at the minute. Good luck getting the help you need.
This way your recipient gets an email that you appear to have personalised without it taking a lot of your time to create. If you have a lot of emails that you send in response to questions you could conceivably create snippets that save you hours.
Summary of Inbox Zero Steps 1-4
If you have completed Inbox Zero Steps 1-4 you will be reaping the time benefits already. You will have eliminated unwanted subscriptions, consolidated your email into as few interfaces as possible, delegated any email that you can and automated your responses to save time.
The first four steps have all been ones that you might go through now and then, with the goal being to reduce the total burden of email received and the time spent replying to the email you do need to receive.
Your daily work begins with Step 5: Process. This is a set of best practices that you need to employ every single day.
You can also have the checklist and workflow diagram, for free!
You can also have the checklist and workflow diagram, for free!
Inbox Zero Step 5: Process
My approach to processing email is influenced by that of Merlin Mann who, in turn, reports being heavily influenced by the writing of David Allen in his wildly successful book Getting Things Done (GTD).
The diagram below summarises the GTD processing workflow.
I also recommend Episode 15 of Able Business Radio by my friend, Zachary Sexton. Zack was kind enough to allow me to embed some of his material below for ease, but I encourage readers to check out his site and podcast. They’re always filled with useful ideas and suggestions.
Here is the episode, just click the play symbol to listen.
Zack’s workflow is like a modernised version of the GTD workflow and relies heavily on the digital tools he uses to manage his life. Your inbox is digital: storing reference material online and creating actions in a task manager makes sense.
Merlin Mann, Zachary Sexton and I all recommend processing email in bursts and then closing your email client. Make decisions on what the emails mean to you and then refocus on your other work priorities.
Processing, not checking
Note that you aren’t ‘checking’ your email, you’re ‘processing’ it. Although some might argue this is semantics, words convey meaning. To me, ‘checking’ suggests passivity or acceptance.
Processing suggests action and decisiveness.
Leaving your email client open all day just invites trouble: every new email that appears is like a shiny bauble to distract you from your real work.
So, make a time in the morning and in the afternoon to process your email. Schedule thirty minutes each time. And adopt an email processing workflow.
This is mine:
Is it Actionable?
The first question you need to ask when processing your email is: Is it Actionable?
If it isn’t something you need to do, it doesn’t need to to take much more of your time. You only have one more question to answer: Do I need it?
If you won’t ever need this email, delete it! If you might need it in the future, decide whether it gets archived or sent to a reference storage such as Evernote.
For emails that are actionable, you have a further question to answer.
Will it take less than 2 minutes to respond?
There’s no point spending your time creating a task in a to-do list if it’s only going to take you two minutes to answer. And, thanks to your use of canned responses or text expansion saved snippets, you now have lots of emails you can answer in two minutes or less.
If it’s going to take less than two minutes, answer the email and then archive it, send it to reference or delete it.
If it is going to take more than 2 minutes, you have one final question to answer.
Am I the best person to answer this email?
If you aren’t the best person to answer the email, who is? Delegate the email to whomever is most appropriate and move on with processing the remainder of your inbox.
If the email is actionable, is going to take more than two minutes and you’re the best person to respond, it is now a task. And, as a task, it belongs on your to-do list.
Note that the final outcome of any of the pathways in my processing workflow is one of the following six options:
- Do it now!
- Create a task
There is no option listed for ‘leave it in my inbox, procrastinate on it for months and then finally make a decision’. Your goal is to decide on each email once, and then move to the next. Try not to skip or leave for later.
Hack your Email Tip 8: Keyboard Shortcuts
I’ve suggested that you should archive an email when it isn’t actionable but you might need it later. There are several ways to make archiving an email as simple as a click or a swipe.
When using the web, you will have access to keyboard shortcuts in apps like Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail. Using a keyboard shortcut means that you can delete or archive emails without even using the mouse.
For Gmail users, turn on Keyboard shortcuts by going into Settings via the gear icon at upper right of the screen:
In the ‘General’ tab, scroll down until you find ‘Keyboard shortcuts’ and click the on radio button:
Scroll to the very bottom and click ‘Save Changes’. You can now use keyboard shortcuts in Gmail!
Now, after you’ve decided you don’t need to reply but do want to keep it for later, just type ‘e’.
Voila! You have archived the email.
In Outlook and Windows Live Hotmail you will need folders as there isn’t an archiving system. To move an email to a folder click ‘Ctrl + Shift + V’ and a menu will appear asking you to which folder to move it. (If you want to delete just type ‘CTRL + D’.)
For Yahoo Mail, you again need to use folders. The ‘D’ key will open the Move menu.
Note: Keyboard shortcuts are available for many web applications and are not limited to email. A quick Google search will find a list of further shortcuts you can use.
Hack your Email Tip 9: Mail to X
In my workflow above I recommend that you send reference material to online storage (Evernote). Now I’ll show you how to make this easy.
Sending an email for storage in Evernote is as simple as sending any other email. Assuming you have an Evernote account, go to your Account Settings. Scroll down and find the section toward the bottom with the heading ‘Email Notes to’. The email address listed there is the address to which you send your emails.
The subject of your email will become the note title. It will default to going to your Evernote inbox, but you can specify the folder by adding ‘@foldername‘ to the subject line.2
Similarly, you could set tags using ‘#’ and a reminder using ‘!’.
This will work as long as the order of things in the subject field follows this template:
[Title of Note] ![Reminder Date] @[Folder] #[Tag]
You don’t have to use all of the options, just don’t try putting a tag before a folder.
You can also do this in OneNote.3
First, check the email address you used for your account at their Email Settings page.
Then, send any email you want to store to firstname.lastname@example.org from one of your addresses and it should be safely stored away for reference!
Hack your Email Tip 10: Deeper Integration
The workflow image also suggests sending your tasks to a task manager or to-do list application (e.g. Todoist). Just like with Evernote and OneNote there are ways to do make this quite simple.
If you have a Premium account at Todoist there is an email address for each project as well as even for the comments for a project. You can find the email address for your Inbox by clicking the project actions icon at the right above the list of tasks.
After the drop-down menu appears select ‘Email tasks to this project’ to get the address.
Once you have the address to send your tasks to, save it in your email client for easy access. Similar to Evernote, the subject line of the email will become the task name. There are also shortcuts that can apply labels, due dates or priorities if you place them in the subject line or email body.4
Todoist also has a plugin for Gmail and Outlook that allows you to create a task from an email without leaving the email client.
You can get the Gmail plugin here and the Outlook plugin here. Once you install it you will see a new button in the message view.
Click on ‘Add to Todoist’ and you can add the email directly. You can also apply projects, labels, priorities and due dates.
Now you don’t need to remember the email address or the subject codes as you can create the task directly!
Hack your Email Tip 11: Swipe Actions
Remember that I mentioned processing email on a mobile device near the start of this post? One of the reasons that I love Newton is that you can connect it to other web apps like Evernote and Todoist, as well as a host of others.5
The other reason is that you can define four different swipe actions for the inbox list screen that allow you to do different things with the emails. You have the option of half or full swipe either left or right.
I have assigned a full left swipe as ‘Mark as Spam’. Full right swipe means ‘Delete’. Half left means ‘Snooze’ and half right means ‘Move to folder’. Here is a view of my settings screen.
When I am processing email on my phone I have four options for dealing with an email accessible by sweeping my finger.
I have written to Newton support asking if they can create an option to use a supercharger for a swipe action. This would make Newton my perfect email processing machine. I would replace ‘snooze’ and ‘move to folder’ with a swipe to Evernote and a swipe to Todoist.
Newton can’t yet assign swipes to superchargers like Evernote or Todoist. However, the ability to glance at an email header and swipe it to spam or delete means that I can process a significant proportion of my inbox in around a second per email.
Hack your Email Tip 12: Even Deeper Integration
Most people who have been online in recent years will have heard of services like IFTTT and Zapier. These services hook into many different web applications and provide links between them.
This can be incredibly powerful.
Once you grant access to Gmail for IFTTT, for example, you could trigger an action just by starring an email. That action could be to copy the email to Evernote or store it in Dropbox. It might be to add the sender’s details to a CRM.
IFTTT is advertising that they now link over 500 different services, while Zapier claims over 750 integrated applications! Microsoft has a competitor called Flow which, despite being a long way behind in terms of the raw number of services (currently 159), provides deep integration with many Microsoft products.
IFTTT is free. Zapier and Flow both have a free tier that includes many apps but limits users to fewer steps in each automation. (They also reserve some applications for premium accounts.)
It is easy to get started: the simplest to understand is IFTTT. You can sign up and have an integration linking your Gmail with Evernote or a task manager within minutes.
I prefer Evernote for reference material and Todoist for my task list, but you might prefer alternatives. I’ve already shown you how to email into OneNote for storage. Dropbox doesn’t have this facility, but you can use IFTTT, Zapier or Flow.
Google Drive is another popular choice for Gmail users, and you can save attachments directly from within Gmail. Alternatively, all of IFTTT, Zapier and Flow can link with Drive to enable storage of your emails for later.
If you prefer Box for your storage, you can email in or use any of IFTTT, Zapier or Flow.
There are many alternatives to Todoist for task management. One of the most popular is Trello. You can email into Trello6, or hook into it with Flow, Zapier or IFTT. You can access Toodledo in all four ways as well7, as you can Asana8 and Wunderlist9.
Summary of Inbox Zero Step 5
Processing our email is one of the main areas where most of us can improve. Some fundamental principles are important to reiterate:
- Processing is an active word and is much better to use than ‘checking’. It suggests ownership and positivity.
- You should process your email two to three times per work day in short bursts. This allows us to focus on what is important, not on others’ priorities.
- Processing follows a simple algorithm with only two or three questions for each email (depending on the path through the workflow).
- The processing workflow doesn’t allow for deciding to leave the email in your inbox for another time.
Be diligent and decisive. Take control of your inbox by making two or three decisions and moving on to the next email until you’re clear.
Want to take control of your email?
Sign up for a course and learn more techniques to help you manage your inbox.
Become an Email Ninja from Flipping Heck.
Inbox Zero Step 6: Be a good Email Citizen
Now that you’re getting more efficient with your email, if would be great if you could lead the way for others. By demonstrating good email behaviours, your friends and colleagues might learn some new techniques that in turn make your own life a little bit easier.
In Cal Newport’s masterpiece Deep Work, the author discusses his approach to email. Although I suspect that I wouldn’t get away with behaving like he reports he does, there is a section of his book that has been of great use to me. In his fourth rule (Drain the Shallows) his second tip is:
Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails
Newport suggests taking a moment to consider what the intended outcome is for each email exchange. Then you need to answer the following question. What is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
Once you’ve answered this question for yourself, replace a quick response with one that takes the time to describe the process you identified, points out the current step, and emphasizes the step that comes next.
He provides several example responses:
“I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works.”
“I suggest we schedule a phone call for a month from now for this purpose. Below I listed some dates and times when I’m available for a call. When you respond with your notes, indicate the date and time combination that works best for you and we’ll consider that reply confirmation for the call. I look forward to digging into this problem.”
His theory is that more time spent up front will reduce the amount of back and forward. This will save time overall by reducing the number of emails he has to process.
Consider when you send your Emails
Do you like getting an email from your boss at 8 pm? If you’re a conscientious worker, you might well think about answering the email irrespective of whether it was sent during your rostered working hours. However, this could take your attention away from other things that are important to you.
What about 10 pm? Or, midnight? Where’s the line when sending an email becomes intrusive and counter-productive?
(Of course, I would suggest you shouldn’t be processing your emails at 8 pm, 10 pm or midnight. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t know your boss had sent you one.)
If receiving such an email is likely to provoke angst for you, your next job is to consider whether you are responsible for doing this to others. I imagine that many of us have done this without thinking of the impact on the recipients.
If you want your colleagues to be refreshed and effective when they are at work, it might be worth deciding whether any email you might send out-of-hours will help them or harm.
One way to ensure you don’t intrude is to use an email scheduling tool. Boomerang for Gmail and Outlook is a well-known example. Among its many capabilities is being able to schedule an email to send later.
If you are working at night and writing emails to colleagues, might it be better to schedule the email to send at 8 am the next morning?
Think Twice before you Reply All
One of my greatest bug-bears is the profligate use of ‘Reply All’. As Christina outlined in our interview above, it should only take a moment to consider whether your response needs to go to everyone on the cc line.
If not everyone needs to see your response, don’t Reply All. Send your emails with intent, not as a reflex.
I have started to reduce my own participation in email chains in which there is heavy use of Reply All. I don’t think they are that effective in resolving whatever issue is under discussion.
So far you have eliminated unwanted newsletters and consolidated your email accounts and interfaces. Then, you considered delegating some of your emails and automated your frequent responses. You have developed a processing workflow you will use several times per day. Finally, you’ve considered how your email behaviours impact on others.
The final step is to close your email client.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf and an Inbox Zero checklist.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf and an Inbox Zero checklist.
Inbox Zero Step 7: Close your Email Client
Even if you do get your inbox down to zero every time you process your emails, you need to go ahead and close your email client or browser tab anyway.
Because every time a new email arrives you’re at risk of distraction from the more important work you should be doing.
Keeping in mind that when Merlin Mann defined the term Inbox Zero he stated that:
It’s not how many messages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox
Many email clients will have a visual or auditory alert to say that new email has arrived. Their purpose is to demand your attention and drag your focus back to your inbox. Don’t let them hijack your brain like that!
The safest way to keep your brain out of your inbox is to close the inbox.
What if you need to access archived email for the work you’re doing? Well, you can try your best to turn off all new email alerts, although I suspect this won’t be enough. The lure of the shiny new email waiting for you to read it is likely to be too great.
Hack your Email Tip 13: Inbox Pause
Boomerang recently released a new feature called Inbox Pause. Inbox Pause will move all incoming emails into a separate folder. You can even hide that folder from view if you’re worried about seeing an unread count!
When you activate Inbox Pause you will see a pop-up offering several options. These include an Auto-Responder, the aforementioned ability to hide the label and the option to Unpause automatically at a certain time.
The paid subscriptions add delivery exceptions for people whose email you want to allow and scheduled delivery into the inbox.
The really fantastic thing? Boomerang intercepts your email irrespective of how you access your account. Even if I access my email on my mobile using Newton, my inbox remains paused. I won’t see new emails until I unpause it.
Since using Inbox Pause, I’ve been able to keep my Gmail browser tab open at my desk while I work, without risking distraction. The best of both worlds!
Hack your Email Tip 14: Turn off notifications
I wear a smartwatch as well as carrying my mobile phone. With both set to the vibrate mode during business hours, I often feel like I spend half my time checking on yet another buzzing sensation in my breast pocket or wrist!
I’ve recommended the use of mobile apps for processing your email. It would be neglectful not to mention the impact their notifications and alerts can have on your concentration and attention. One of the best things you can do is turn off notifications for your email app.
iOS and Android deal with notifications differently, so the steps you need to take will depend on the device you carry. It isn’t hard to find the information online: a quick Google search is often all that is required:
Android – Email notifications, Unread Email Badge, All notifications
iOS – Email notifications, Unread Email Badge, All notifications
I can’t tell you how much better I feel without having my phone or watch buzzing me every time new emails arrive. This is one of the highest yield setting changes I think you can make.
Hack your Email Tip 15: Tell people how to reach you
As Dr John Jurica from The VITAL Physician Executive points out in the comments below, if you are only going to process your email intermittently it is important to ensure people adjust their expectations of when you will see their email and respond. He suggests using an autoresponder, and I think it’s a great idea.
You can create an autoresponder in Gmail by going into Settings then General. Scroll to the bottom to find ‘Vacation responder’.
Then, choose when you want the autoresponder to fire and what message it will send. Ideally, you would provide a way to contact you urgently if required, as well as a timeline for when to expect a response.
You will find instructions for doing the same in Outlook via Google.
If you’re still with me you’ve eliminated unwanted emails, consolidated your email accounts, delegated some of your emails and automated common replies. You’re using a processing workflow two or three times daily and you’re being kind to others. Lastly, you’re closing your email client or browser and you’ve switched off mobile notifications. Now you can concentrate on more important work!
I hope this ultimate guide to managing your email will help you achieve Inbox Zero.
What is Inbox Zero? Inbox Zero is a state of mind. I think of it as a way to maintain your attention to focus on what is important to you.
If you follow the steps detailed above you will have dramatically reduced the amount of irrelevant email you receive. You will also have developed strategies for dealing with the emails you do need to process.
Good luck as you plan how to use all your free time.
Has this post been helpful? Do you have any other email management strategies that might help people achieve Inbox Zero? I’d love you to leave a comment below!
- http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/ultimate-way-inbox-zero.html [↩]
- https://blog.evernote.com/blog/2014/06/14/inbox-hero-email-evernote/ [↩]
- https://www.onenote.com/EmailToOneNote [↩]
- https://support.todoist.com/hc/en-us/articles/205749772-Todoist-Your-Email [↩]
- https://newtonhq.com/k/integrations [↩]
- http://help.trello.com/article/809-creating-cards-by-email [↩]
- https://www.toodledo.com/info/help_email.php [↩]
- https://asana.com/guide/help/email/email-to-asana [↩]
- https://support.wunderlist.com/customer/portal/articles/59709 [↩]