Inbox-zero made easy

Stephen Smith — №12 with Jason Womack

I was on the phone recently with a friend and he was complaining about all of the crazy emails that he gets. The other day I was talking to a client that I ran into at the grocery store and I asked her if she had seen the email I sent her the day before, as she hadn’t responded. She said no, because her email in-box was so full she couldn’t find anything.

Yesterday I received a reply to an email I had sent to a colleague three weeks ago, she was apologizing for being so late but the message I sent had “gotten lost” in her email program.

Are you seeing a trend here? It used to take me upwards of two hours to go through all of my emails and get to “in-box zero”, mainly because I manage so many email accounts. But I applied the Today, Tomorrow or Later model to my email, added a couple of filters and now I can breeze through my email communications in just a few minutes. Let me show you how.

Today, tomorrow or later

TTL is a method of prioritizing your tasks, actions and inputs. The essentials are as follows:

You create 3 folders in your email Inbox, labeled “Today”, “Tomorrow” and “Later”

Each email that you receive gets prioritized according to its importance: 

Move it to the appropriate folder

If the email is something that someone else should take care of, forward it to them with a brief note and a due date. Tag the original email with “Delegated”, the name of the person it was delegated to, and the Due Date. Then move it to the appropriate folder.

If the email is about something that you do not need to act on - then file it, archive it or delete it. If, like me, you receive email notifications from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other Social Networks, then create individual folders for each of these types of notifications and set up a filter to automatically move the incoming messages to the appropriate folder. Then you can deal with all of these at whatever time is best for you to do so.

If you receive any emails from sites that you have subscribed to set up a filter to move them to a “Subscriptions” folder automatically. This is fantastically important! I can’t stress enough how much easier your life will be if you filter out all of these messages from merchants that you may have given your email address to. You may even wish to create sub-folders for this category of email, to separate the merchant-subscriptions from news and information subscriptions. This way you can process all of these at once when it is convenient for you.

Your email folder tree should look something like this:

Once you have set this up you are in business and should be able to process your Inbox in a short time each day.

Step one

Each day when you decide to first open your email client, click on the “Tomorrow” folder first. Decide which, if any of these email messages need to get acted upon Today, and move them to the “Today” folder.

Step two

Go to your Inbox and process the new messages according to the TTL formula. Your Social Media notifications should already be in their proper folders. If there are any new subscriptions move those emails and add a filter to catch them the next time.

Step three

Open your “Today” folder and start working on those emails. Delete or Archive them when you are done with each one.

Repeat this process each time that you open your email client. Your role will determine how often that is. Some people can check email two or three times a day, some need to keep it open all the time. Some people can get by only checking a couple of times a week, it all depends on you.

Closing out

At the end of your last email processing session of the day, open the “Later” folder and look at those emails again. Are there any that you should move to “Today” or “Tomorrow”? Do it.

Then double-check the “Tomorrow” folder: are there any messages in there that you can act on today? If so, move them to the “Today” folder.

Finally, check your “Subscriptions” folder: are there any messages in there that you really aren’t going to read? Delete them.

Dealing with subscription overload

If you find that your “Subscriptions” folder fills rapidly with hundreds of emails you may want to reconsider all of the alerts and notifications that you are subscribed to. This can be the number one reason that people suffer from “email overload” — all of the alerts and sales and special offers that you receive when you give your email address to a merchant or when you buy something online.

You may even consider “purging” this folder once every 3 - 6 months, by unsubscribing from email alerts and notifications that you don’t find useful or valuable.

Getting to inbox zero

This simple structure can be a Godsend for those of you that find you’re overwhelmed by emails flooding into your mailbox. Soon you will be able to process the important things in your email in just a few minutes a day.

Photo: Flickr / z287marc CC by 2.0

Stephen smith

Stephen Smith

Stephen P. Smith is a marketing and productivity consultant who lives in New Hampshire, USA and enjoys, reading, hiking, fishing and camping.

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