Why anything other than "Inbox 0" gives me night terrors

I'm a self confessed productivity snob, I'm constantly banging on to anyone who'll listen (+ those that won't) about productivity techniques and strategies. One thing that strikes fear into my heart is anything other than inbox zero. What I mean by that is a consistently clean email inbox.

I'm definitely not talking about checking your emails every 5 minutes and keeping your inbox at zero 100% of the time because that's counter productive and is probably the worse thing you can do. What I'm talking about is a consistently tidy inbox on a day to day basis. Every now and then I sit down with some of my Training Tilt users who live locally and help them with their platform setup. Sometimes they need to dive into their emails and get some info out. The thing that always jumps off the screen and smacks me in the face is the number of unread (un-dealt with) emails. Typically there is a range of horror stories.

Here's some examples of stories I've seen

PG Inbox (120)

This isn't that scary but don't let it get out of control.

R16 Inbox (590)

Don't watch this alone

R18 Inbox (2496)

This is absolutely terrifying. Imagine all the important emails lost amongst the mess. Good luck sleeping at night. Anything worse than this won't make it through the censoring process.

I normally say something to the effect of "how do you keep track of your emails with such a messy inbox?" to which I've heard various replies about "Systems" and how "it works for me just fine" all of which frankly are just excuses for not dealing with emails in a responsible way and it would be difficult to convince me otherwise. Anyway, I'm done with the lecture for now as I'm sure some of you are guilty of similar rationalisations.

Here are some practical ways to reduce your inbox clutter with the ultimate goal of inbox(0)

1. The Spring Clean

This is going to hurt, but if you follow up with the rest of the steps you should never have to do this again. Ever. We can try and hack this a bit by using some search filters or some rules. if you are using gmail (if you aren't you should) you can just use the built in filters to automatically find emails and delete them. Using filters to move multiple messages.

At this point you are probably worried you might delete something really important. The reality is if it was important don't you think you might have bothered to open the email by now? This reminds me of when we were renovating our house. We moved everything into storage and two years later when we finally finished we ended up throwing most of it out. If we didn't need it in the last two years then we just didn't need it.

2. Unsubscribe

This seems like a really obvious one but you'd be surprised by how many emails you can avoid by just unsubscribing from mail lists. Some mail lists are an invaluable source of information so just do a little test on your self to see which emails you actually bother to read. You might think some are great but if you are not taking the time to read them regularly then they are just taking up space.

Use the search tool in your email client (gmail, outlook etc) and search for the word "unsubscribe" for now just concentrate on all the results that show as unread. If it looks like you see a pattern of unread emails from the same sender, open one up find the unsubscribe link and just do it. A half dozen of these and you'll reap the benefits of a lighter inbox almost immediately. There might be a few there you are reluctant to unsubscribe from because it's great content or you really plan on getting around to reading them, save those ones for number 3.

3. Create a "read later rule"

There might be some awesome mailing lists you love but don't always get around to reading them. The best thing to do for this is get your inbox robot working for you. Most email clients have functionality to set up a rule to automatically process those emails and organise them for you either by sender, subject etc. Think of it as hiring an assistant to file them away for you to read later. If you don't end up reading them that's fine but who know's you might get a spare hour on the bus or while you've got your feet up after a tough training session which is always a great time to read motivating inspirational content.

Here's how to use filters in gmail to help with this

4. Set a daily task to keep inbox(0)

Now you've attacked the source of the problem it's important to keep on top of it. Little and often is the key from now on. If you can (and I'd suggest it's possible for 99% of people) set yourself a task at least once a day to check your emails, organise anything that needs to be dealt with in folders eg "To do", "Done" etc and then delete the rest. This is probably the most important step and developing this habit will improve your productivity and help you feel in control.

Now go and get started, this will be harder for some for than for others but it will be worth it to get to inbox zero.

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