Is email a source of stress in your life?
Very regularly business leaders ask me about how to deal with overwhelming email. It comes up all the time.
Awhile back (in 2013) I wrote a blog called Is email killing you?
In that article I talked about thinking differently and more strategically about dealing with email, and I also talked about the idea of keeping a zero-inbox.
A zero inbox
At the time of that writing I had maintained a zero inbox for a few years, and then did for a couple of more…
People used to regularly ask me to show them my empty inbox to prove that such a wonder could exist!
But then, I will confess… I fell off the wagon!
I got extra busy for a while. Over the past 2 years I have had an unusual amount of really good, important work, and some new strategic Ruthless Priorities around scaling my business.
I’ve often talked about Ruthless Priorities as being those few things you refuse to put at risk… And I decided in that period, that a zero-inbox was not a Ruthless Priority.
So I let it go. Spoiler alert — wrong answer!
That was a mistake!
For me, having the few thousand emails in my inbox that accumulated over those 2 years was a constant source of additional anxiety — Anxiety that sapped energy from my Ruthless Priorities.
I hated it.
I will say here that I know plenty of people with thousands of messages in their inboxes, and it causes them no anxiety at all.
Search tools are pretty good, so why bother spending any time on cleaning up? If that is you, you can move on…
But for me, and for the countless others that experience stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed, behind, out of control, missing/forgetting something important, etc… I thought I would share my recovery journey with you.
I am once again finding great joy in emptying my inbox every day, feeling more in control in life, and realizing that it takes very little additional time to do it.
Getting to Zero
Here is how I am getting back to zero.
When I get email, I either delete, act or file. Nothing gets left in the inbox once I see it.
In terms of filing, I have two types of email files, ACTION and SAVE
My ACTION files are
DO NOW (look at and finish before the day is over)
DO REPLY (things that require only an email reply, but I don’t have time in the moment)
DO (Things that require work in the real world, like develop a proposal, or have a meeting)
WAITING (Things that I am waiting for a reply that I put a calendar flag on and file)
A note on the DO-READ-WATCH file. I reserve this file for things that I actually WANT or truly NEED to review later. I have become much more realistic about deleting the ones I will never get to right up front.
My SAVE files are:
One for each CLIENT
One for each PARTNER
One for each PROJECT
TRAVEL (all travel logistics details)
LOGINS AND ACCOUNTS
INTERESTING (good stuff I want to save)
My process to get back to zero and stay there
At the beginning of February, I committed to myself that each day I would keep NEW, incoming emails to zero. The inbox would not grow.
In this first phase, zero-inbox = no accumulation. So starting in February, I had no new, February messages accumulating in my inbox. But I could still see January and before.
From that point onward, as new messages came in, I either addressed them, filed them, or deleted them right away.
My process for not ignoring what I file
Here is how I deal with taking action.
At the end of each day, I make sure that DO NOW is empty.
I find or schedule 15-30 mins each day to deal with DO REPLY. I make sure to clear out DO REPLY each week.
For anything in the DO category that I have not addressed during the week, I put it on my real-world task list of things to do.
This follow-up process allows me to feel like I am not missing or forgetting anything important because nothing gets either buried or ignored.
Clearing out the rest
Then for the rest of the messages, going backwards in time, I work on a month at a time to clear them out.
Right now, I am back to July of last year. I imagine as I go further back in time, I will be deleting more and more, but I am still finding things that I want to pick up on — interesting or important things that had gotten buried.
I imagine it will take me around another 2 months to clear out the rest and truly be at zero.
But I will tell you that these last weeks of zero-accumulation have been a wonderful and motivating start.
And it’s really not taking me any time to maintain the no-accumulation part, though I am investing some time on the clearing out part.
The big payoff for me is a significant reduction in stress.
What do you think?
What do you think about these ideas? What would you add? Join the conversation about this on my Facebook page.
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor.
She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)