I get to inbox zero – that is, no emails in my inbox *at all* – four or five times a week, and I generally reply to all my emails within 24 hours. Yes, I’ve been accused of OCD, and I *am* a wee bit competitive, but I also think that the system I use can pretty much be used by anybody with the same results. Here’s what I do:
Batch the hell out of it
Every morning I review my todo list and set my goals for the day, and then sit down to answer email. One at a time. Starting with the oldest email in my inbox.
This is harder than it sounds – or, if you’ve ever had more email than you can handle, probably exactly as hard as it sounds. But sticking to this system means that you’ll actually get your email DONE, which is much better than what’s happening now.
By setting aside one particular time to do email you prevent yourself from making excuses to “come back later” to difficult emails that you don’t want to write. This enforced discipline makes possible the next trick I rely heavily on:
Brevity is the
You know the rest, so I’m not going to waste time writing it here. The same goes for my emails – if you want a conversation schedule a phone call. Email can be polite, and even funny, but it’s usually best for exchanging information. To that end, I skim emails (I know, I know! And you spent so much time crafting it, too!), include the minimum necessary niceties, and then look for the questions.
That’s key – in fact, if you’re faced with a particularly wordy email you can just do a search for “?” and backtrack from there. Answer that question, and then a couple more, right at the top of your email. Viola. Done.
As an aside, I’ve collaborated with extraordinarily wordy people before and learned that most of them are easily trained. If you simply reply to the first three questions OR the first set of bullet points they provide, you’ll find that after just a few exchanges they’ll start supplying all their emails to you with bullet-pointed question lists. This is much more convenient for everybody, and don’t feel bad – they’re better off for it.*
Keep it Moving
Often I get stuck on emails that don’t have a clear question in them. This is either because I failed to ask something clearly in the first place, or the person who wrote me didn’t know what they wanted. Rather than let the email stick in your inbox until God shines his light down from the heavens and clears things up, ask a question and send it back to them. Viola! Now *they* have to figure out what the next step is, while you get on with your life.
This is my ace in the hole, the one thing that gives me an edge over most everyone I email with. When I send an email I want a reply to I cc myself, and when that email comes in it gets shunted automatically (using a Filter, which most emailing programs have these days) into a folder called Waiting. Once a week I go through that folder, and every email I *haven’t gotten a reply to yet* I follow up on. GMail labs has something called “Templates” which means I can just hit a button and have the same followup email automatically filled out – so I just have to hit send. I’ve also got gmail setup to automatically default to “Reply-All”, meaning that my account is again cc’d, and again shunted into Waiting, where the cycle continues.
The upshot of this is that I can reply to emails as quickly as I like because they never have to sit in my inbox; I know they won’t get lost on the other end because I’ll automatically follow up with them at the start of the next week.
This changes a lot of things – I’m quick to reply to emails, because it means the other person is now responsible for moving things forward. I’m much more comfortable reaching out to people because I know the email won’t get lost, and I get a hell of a lot more results because I’m consistent in following up with people. And finally, any spare time I have throughout the day can very conveniently be spent sending one-liner, 5-minute emails that don’t require long-winded answers. This means that when I DO sit down to batch my emails I can actually spend the time required to be politic and thoughtful and to do any research required.
The result is that I hit inbox zero quickly and often, and more importantly, don’t find it stressful to do so. If you do the above I’ll bet you do the same.
* Alternately, only reply to them via text message until they get the hint.
For extra ninja power, I went back and noted down the Gmail Labs I use:
Create a Document
Default ‘Reply to all’
Quote Selected Text
Google Voice player in mail
Message Sneak Peek
Send & Archive
Sender Time Zone
Title Tweaks – Changes order of elements in the browser title bar to see if a new mail has arrived even if Gmail window is minimized.
Finally, enable, learn, and use HOTKEYS!! They’re LOADS more efficient, especially when batching.