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How to get to inbox-zero every day, spend less time on email, and never miss something important

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

GTD Steps: Capture

Email is everywhere in the corporate world. New technologies have replaced some of it, but it's still by far the most common way to communicate. And because it accounts for so much of your interaction with people, it's also how they form an opinion about you.

When you manage your email well, it shows. People view you as responsive and professional. But the opposite is also true. When you don't manage it well you'll likely be viewed as disorganized and overwhelmed.

But staying on top of your email the way you want to is not easy. Unless you have a good system, email eats up a lot more time, attention, and mental energy than it needs to. Your email inbox is your primary Getting Things Done capture tool at work so having a good system for managing it is crucial.

Here are some clues your system for managing your email could use some work:

  • You have emails in your inbox that are more than a week old

  • You read the same email multiple times

  • You use your inbox as a reminder of things you need to do

  • Your list of emails goes more than half-way down your screen

  • You forward important emails to yourself so they'll be at the top of your inbox

If some or all of these apply to you keep reading! I'll teach you a simple process for staying on top of your email.

Why leaving emails in your Inbox is killing your productivity

You've probably felt the anxiety that comes from having a long list of emails in your inbox. Each one represents something you need to get done that you haven't gotten to yet. The longer the list, the more it weighs on your mind. You don't want to forget something so you review the list over and over.

The problem with doing this is it takes a lot of mental energy.

Decision Fatigue

In psychology there's a condition called decision fatigue. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain. You become low on mental energy. Each time you review an email in your inbox, your brain has to remember what it's about and what you need to do with it.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it adds up. As an example, let's say you leave 7 emails in your inbox after you first read them. Let's also say you review your inbox 4 times per day. Each of those times your brain has to remember what each of those 7 emails was about and what you need to do. That 28 extra decisions your brain could have avoided. If you leave those 7 emails in your inbox for three days then your brain has made an extra 84 decisions (3 x 28). That's in addition to reviewing all of the new emails you received during that time.

Here's a quick exercise to see how many unnecessary email reviews your brain does each day.

On a piece of scratch paper draw the table below. Then do the steps show below:

  1. Count the number of emails in your inbox that have been there for the number of days indicated in column A. For example, if you have 6 emails in your inbox that have been there for exactly 2 days, enter 6 in column B to the right of the number 2. Repeat this for each of the numbers (1-5) in column A.

  2. Estimate the number of times you review your inbox in an average day and enter that same number into all of the squares in column C.

  3. For each row, multiply the number in column A x column B x column C. Enter the output into column D of the same row.

  4. Add the numbers in column D and enter the output into the last row of column D

What was your total number of email reviews? Did it surprise you? Keep in mind, these are the extra email reviews you do, the ones that could have been avoided if you had reviewed each email only once.

One way to avoid reviewing an email more than once is to complete whatever tasks relate to as soon as you read it the first time and then move it out of your Inbox. The problem with this approach is you often won't have the time to do the related tasks right away. And even if you did have the time, the tasks related to that email may not be your highest priority at that moment anyway.

So what's the solution?

How to cut your email time in half

There's a simple 4-step process for reviewing each email only once without having to complete the related tasks right away. It will save you time and mental energy managing your emails.

  1. Read the email - start by reading the email thoroughly. Read it with the mindset that this is the only time you will read it. That means you need to read it closely enough to fully understand what's about.

  2. Identify needed actions - identify any actions you need to take related to it. You won't do the actions right now, just identify them. The only exception is if the action can be done in less than two minutes. If that's the case, do it right then.

  3. Put action reminders on a list - put a reminder of each action you need to take into your task management tool or to-do list.

  4. Move the email out of your inbox - since you now have a reminder in your task management system for each action, you no longer need the email to serve as a reminder. Move it out of your inbox.

That's it. Two to three times a day, go to your inbox, click on the first email and work through these four steps. Once you've completed the steps, move onto the next email, and the next and the next until your inbox is empty.

There are several benefits of using this process.

  • You don't miss things - because you take a systematic approach to reviewing your emails, you won't accidentally skip over one. And because you are reading each one thoroughly the first time, you won't miss something you need to do.

  • You don't forget needed actions - having a reminder in your task management system of actions you need to take will help ensure you don't forget them.

  • You free up your mind - instead of using mental energy to review the same email over and over again, you can use it for other things. Take note of how you feel the first time you get your inbox completely empty. That feeling is a sample of how you can feel everyday by following this process.

There are two additional principles that will make this 4-step process as effective and efficient as possible.

  • Process the top item first - even if the second email is one you've been waiting on for a month and the top one is spam, process the top one first. Processing is not spending time on them, it is just deciding what you need to do about them. Processing them in order will ensure you don't miss any.

  • Never put anything back into the Inbox - once you open an email to process it, never go onto the next email until you have completed each of the processing steps. When you read an email that you're not quite sure what to do about, you may be tempted to just move onto the next one. Don't let yourself do this! You'll have to figure out what to do with it at some point so discipline yourself to do it now.

What it feels like to be on top of your email

Once these four steps become habit, you'll be on top of your email permanently. No more worries about missing or forgetting something. No more reading the same emails over and over again. No more feeling overwhelmed or mentally scattered when you open your Inbox.

You'll feel confident knowing that each email has been handled effectively. You'll have a plan for exactly how to attack your email every time you open your Inbox.

Most importantly, you won't feel chained to your email anymore. Checking it a few times a day to process new emails is all it will take to keep your inbox empty. You'll feel a weight come off your mind and you'll be better able to focus on higher value more enjoyable work.

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