When a co-worker brought my attention to an older email productivity article by George Kao that was making the rounds again, it made me realize that the inbox struggle is real. I just got back from a three-week honeymoon in Japan, so I know first-hand just how true this is. There’s a real knack to managing your inbox, and if not an art exactly, then an education. Throughout our trip, my husband, who basically strives for inbox zero at all times, would glance over at my phone, see the mail icon and the number hovering somewhere around 400, and be aghast.
“That stresses me out,” he said, and I could practically see the sweat beading on his brow. But, I was on vacation! And I had an out-of-office responder on—for my work account and my personal address! No one was expecting anything from me, and I was comfortable facing down that ever-growing number upon my return.
Of course, inbox detail, though tedious at times, is also exacting. It doesn’t matter if you’re checking your messages on Monday morning after unplugging all weekend or in the middle of the afternoon on a random Thursday. If you don’t know within seconds whether the message requires—let alone, merits—a response, you’re probably wasting precious work minutes trying to figure it out.
The subtitle of Kao’s piece, “How to Regularly Get to Inbox Zero” reminded me of the importance of simply knowing what to respond to and when. This awareness can mean the difference between an overflowing inbox and a neat and tidy one. Here are quick tips to help you decide.
1. Look for Clues
Sometimes, they are obvious. One of my colleagues forwards quite a few emails pertaining to events, studies, and reports, but she always notes, “Feel free to archive.” At first, I felt as though perhaps I was being rude by not responding with at least the most perfunctory of replies (“Thanks!”), but I quickly realized that her blatant note about archiving meant she didn’t want nor need a response.
If you don’t have such a direct clue, read it again and really think about how your reply would impact the note. If it wouldn’t—say, a person in your department is simply sharing a project he’s working on and you don’t currently have anything of value to add, don’t hit reply for the mere sake of acknowledging receipt.
2. Sniff Out a Question
As with the one above, this will often be straightforward. If there’s a clear question that you’re intended to answer, then obviously a response is required, and maybe a speedy one at that—or one within 24 hours. Since not everyone reaching out to you is guaranteed to write the most eloquent or to-the-point emails, you may have to sift through paragraphs to see if there’s something there for you to answer.
If you’ve determined that there’s no question but you have your own queries, then, by all means, respond for clarification. It’s worth it to follow up and add to someone’s inbox if it has the potential to save future misunderstandings.
3. Speak Up—If You Wish to Be Heard
This one’s the trickiest of the bunch, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll become like second nature. Many times, you’ll receive emails that clearly aren’t asking anything of you. You may receive a response to something you submitted, feedback on a project you completed, advice for handling a situation, intel on a department-specific goal. If you have nothing new to add to the conversation or if you can cleanly take the commentary and proceed with your job, then you can feel at ease about not responding.
But if, on the other hand, you feel compelled to express yourself—for the sake of clarifying yourself or elaborating on a decision you made or providing fresh insight—then of course you should hit the reply button. This may be especially true if your work environment is one that encourages independent thinking and contributing to topics being discussed.
It should go without saying that newsletters, mass emails, or anything that feels like optional reading doesn’t necessitate a response. If you find it helpful, you can create folders according to Kao’s suggestions, and organizing your inbox and maintaining it will practically feel automatic.
Another thing to consider is this: Put yourself in the place of the sender. If you’d been the one to send that message, would you be looking for a response? While there are certainly times to express thanks, if you correspond regularly with someone or have a lot of back and forth—some of which requires a more thought-out answer—you can probably safely leave the email alone and take care not to send an unnecessary two-word reply to someone who, like you, is most likely trying to achieve inbox zero.
Photo of man checking email courtesy of JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images.