If you were to ask careerists what they think of their inbox, most would say that it’s a soul-sucking black hole of follow-up messages, annoying staff correspondences, and newsletters or press releases up the wazoo. And if you were to also ask those people if they could ever see themselves getting through their entire inbox every single day, most would scoff at the idea of such an impossible feat.
This past week though, I decided to take on a challenge that would make most professionals cringe: I made a pact to get to inbox zero every single night before I went to bed.
So, did I do it? The answer is yes. Was it easy? Heck no.
While I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get down to inbox zero every day of my life, I did learn some important lessons along the way that’ll help me better manage my inbox moving forward.
The biggest one? None of the things that helped me most were groundbreaking. They were the strategies I hear time and time again from productivity experts and email moguls—it was just a matter of actually implementing them and following through.
On that note, let me share a few things you actually need to do to make your inbox less horrible.
1. Put “Answering Email” on Your Schedule
I’ve written about this before, but one of the things I found most effective when trying to get to inbox zero every night was not checking my inbox constantly. Instead, I would block certain chunks of time each day to devote to email: for me, 30-60 minutes in the morning, at lunch, and in the late afternoon was plenty of time to get things squared away.
It seems counterintuitive (I was skeptical for sure), but by focusing on that one task and nothing else, I was able to get through my inbox much more quickly than usual. Having the timeline also encouraged me to power through emails at a faster pace, rather than dilly dally on one I didn’t feel like answering or get distracted by an unimportant message rather than just delete it.
Additionally, answering my emails in specific chunks of time made it seem like less of a never-ending chore and more like just another thing on my to-do list, which was much easier to get through. Before this week, I didn’t realize that my inbox was always in the back of my mind, and I was in a perpetual state of dread checking my email account all day. Because it became part of my schedule like everything else, I wasn’t questioning when I had to send my next email; I just made time for it.
It was also super nice to “sign off” at the end of a session and not worry about what was going on in the world of cyberspace.
2. Answer Most Emails Right Away
Personally, about 65-70% of the emails in my inbox require quick responses that take me less than a minute or two to write. Too often, I get in a bad habit of just leaving them in my inbox and saying, “Eh, these are easy. I’ll get to them later.” But, as I realized, it was actually taking me more time and energy to read them, process them enough to decide they were easy enough to put off until later, and then come back later and process them again to respond.
By actually forcing myself to answer those correspondences right then and there during my precious “email answering” time, I was able to get more things out of my inbox and off my mind—and move closer to that elusive inbox zero.
3. Punt Other Emails to Strategic Times
I finally installed the Boomerang app on Gmail last week after a very busy friend of mine kept insisting I get it (“It’s a lifesaver!” she kept saying). And I have to admit: She was right.
Very simply, Boomerang allows you to re-schedule when emails appear in your inbox. While it might sound like cheating to just schedule everything for later (“I got to inbox zero tonight by scheduling 45 emails to show up in my inbox tomorrow morning!”), the point is to be strategic with how you use it.
For example, as the co-founder of a popular college admissions website, high school staffers constantly send me college essay drafts to edit, something I do enjoy doing. However, it’s not fun to have those draft sitting in my inbox for days at a time, and I don’t have time to edit them the second they appear. Instead, I used Boomerang to schedule them to come back when I had more time to edit them (in my case, that’s on Friday afternoons).
Being able to schedule what came into my inbox when made a huge difference in my productivity and how much I was able to get done.
For another way to do this, inbox genius Alex Cavoulacos wrote here about a system for strategically manage emails requiring different levels of effort using labels and folders. Speaking of which:
4. Use Labels or Folders
Mark my words: Don’t use your inbox as some sort of landfill to dump all of your emails; use labels, tabs, or folders (whatever your email provider calls them) to properly organize and file everything you receive.
I have over 30 different labels on my email account, and while that might sound obsessive or specific, it does help me quickly retrieve messages I need and file things once I’m done with them, making my inbox seem a whole lot less scary.
For example, right now I have a couple of back and forth correspondences going on with some of my employees from The Prospect. Instead of just leaving those ongoing emails in my inbox all the time, I’ve filed them under their respective Prospect-related folders so that they only pop up if there’s a new message. This physically clears out my inbox of things I’ve already dealt with, which makes other stuff in turn feel a whole lot more manageable.
5. Unsubscribe from Email Lists
This tip is pretty self-explanatory: Get rid of all the fluff. Do you just go straight to the trash can icon in your inbox when certain newsletters arrive? Just unsubscribe. And don’t even pull the “But I might read this later!” excuse. My rule of thumb is that if I delete a newsletter three times in a row, I unsubscribe on the spot.
I personally read a lot of newsletters for various gigs, so to get through the slog, I used Boomerang to find more convenient times for newsletters I liked to appear in my inbox, and I unsubscribed from everything else.
By taking myself off of these email lists, I was essentially keeping myself from receiving several dozen more emails every day. Before, I felt like I spent half of my inbox time just deleting newsletters and other mass email lists, which I no longer have to worry about. It feels like my inbox is about personal email that is directed specifically to me, and the newsletters I kept are things I actually look forward to reading.
Looking back on my experiment, was it worth it to try and get to inbox zero every day?
I think the short answer is no, you shouldn’t move heaven and Earth to see that oh-so-lovely “No new mail!” banner in Gmail every single night before bed. However, this experiment proved to me that I didn’t need to have dozens (if not hundreds) of emails sitting in my inbox at all times; there were ways to cut down on the messages and therefore slash my email-induced stress levels. I’m now more aware that answering emails does not have to be a perpetual chore—it’s just another notch in my daily to-do list, which in turn makes me feel less anxious about it.
By changing my email habits, I made the whole process of receiving and sending emails a whole lot easier on myself—and I saved gobs of time doing it. Now who doesn’t love that?