Is your stress level directly correlated to the number of your unanswered emails?

The amount of information and requests making its way INTO our lives often seems to outweigh the time and space available to deal with it.  And for me the little round red circle on my iPhone’s home screen – screaming the number of unread emails – is enough to send my brain into overload.

Many people strive for the elusive “Inbox Zero” – a term coined many years ago by productivity expert Merlin Mann.  And while a blissfully empty email Inbox is an attractive idea, Mann’s concept is about much more than getting to that state.

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life.  That’s “zero”.  It’s not how many emails are in your Inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that Inbox.  Especially when you don’t want it to be,” he said.

I know for myself, when I haven’t kept my incoming information under control, my mind is constantly flitting back to the things I might have missed, forgotten or neglected.  Plus, when I am in email, I’m reading each message multiple times as I remind myself what needs to be done.

So, I have been working on a system that helps me manage the influx and keep the flow under control.  And my version of “Inbox Zero” is:

  • All emails have been read and assessed
  • Those needing responses or action have been completed, or scheduled – and ideally removed from my inbox.
  • Important correspondence has been filed so that it can be searched at a later date if needed.
  • Nothing is missed, ignored or overlooked.
  • The only emails left in my Inbox are those I will be actioning today, otherwise they are allocated to my task manager or are filed away.

Here are my tips for achieving my version of “Inbox Zero” and managing my email:

(1)  Only check emails at scheduled times.

I am so easily distracted, and if a new emails pings its way into my inbox, I am rarely able to resist the promise of what it might contain. So to increase my productivity and stretches of focus on priority work, I now only check emails at certain times during the day.  I’ll run my eyes over my Inbox first thing in the morning (yes, before I get out of bed – I’m that person) and when I first sit down at my desk to start the day’s work.

I’ll check them again around lunchtime, and then again last thing at night. I work hard to make sure that I go to bed with as close to “Inbox Zero” as possible.

(2) Keep my email closed at all other times

I close down my email client (I use Gmail) at all other times, so the temptation to check more often is removed.

(3) Any emails that can be addressed within 3 minutes – I action straight away.

At those allocated times, I work through each email.  If they can be actioned (response sent, action completed or delegated) within 3 minutes or less, I do so straight away. I then file the original email in the appropriate archive folder.  Done, move on to the next.

(4) Emails that can’t be actioned quickly, but need action or attention – I email to my task manager, Asana.

Those emails that will take more attention than just a few minutes, but that need to be completed at some point in the near future, I email to Asana to create a task, and then file the email in archives.  So as I sit down each day to get stuck into more focused work, I know I can find the related information quickly and easily.

It also means that the task doesn’t get lost in a sea of emails.

(5) Educational or emails containing articles I file into my “Reading” folder

I am an information addict.  Each day I receive at least 15-20 emails that contain articles or information that I’m really interested in, but that is not a priority for that day.  So I file it into a “Reading” folder that I can access at an appropriate time.

But here’s my guilty secret – I currently have thousands of emails in that folder. So I’m not getting to them nearly as quickly as I’m collecting them, but I am safe in the knowledge that nothing in that folder is a priority.  It doesn’t take up brain space wondering if I’ve overlooked anything.  It’s just a endless cavern of information that I will wade into one day to soak up knowledge and insights.  (Yep one day).

To address this issue, I’m trialling scheduling 10 minutes each day to read through the most recent emails in this folder. If I want to take notes from the article I add them to a relevant Evernote note, or sometimes I save the whole article to Evernote for future reference -but only if I think I will be referring to it often.

(6) Archive any completed conversations

Any emails that don’t need a response (or once I have responded) are filed in a range of Archive folders that I have set up within my email client, so they can still be searched but are out of sight, out of mind.

(7) Be ruthless with the Unsubscribe

I subscribe to a lot of email newsletters – and these can take up a lot of time and be quite distracting. Plus the sheer number of emails passing in front of my eyes can raise stress levels – even the act of skimming and deleting takes up valuable brain space.

So if I delete a particular email newsletter more than twice without reading it, I unsubscribe. If I’m not seeing it as a priority to even skim the email, then it’s doubtful it will be important in the future. I try and unsubscribe from at least 5 emails each day. Harsh, but necessary.

The result of this practice is a clearer inbox, a clearer mind, and a confidence that I’m not losing or missing anything.  An extra bonus is that my emails are saved in a safer, more accessible and more organised way.

Productivity systems are never a one-size-fits-all, but it’s definitely worth trialling your own system to bring your information consumption under control.

Your turn: Do you regularly achieve Inbox Zero or a state of “in control” in your inbox? Or are you opening an inbox with thousands of emails each day?