“Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.“ – Bruce Lee
You too can have a zero email inbox, if you choose to. I chose to go zero mail in my inbox when I first joined Microsoft years ago, and I’m glad I did.
With a single glance, I know whether I have new email to deal with.
I never have to scroll to see what my next actions are.
At a more basic level, an empty inbox feels good.
I thought it was just me, but others say the same.
A Proven Methodology for Keeping a Zero Inbox
It was tough when I first joined Microsoft.
My inbox drove me.
Eventually, I learned how to drive my inbox.
I studied the masters around me. I also studied those that failed (there’s no failure, only lessons.)
I refined my approach over the years.
Since then, I’ve successfully taught my mentees and others how to spend less time on administration and more time on results.
Now I’m sharing with you.
It’s Not About a Zero Inbox – It’s About Being On Top of Your Game
When I share with people how they can have a Zero Inbox they get excited and focus on that, almost to the point of obsession.
But that’s not really the point.
The point is to simplify your life and to take away some of the psychic weight and anxiety of having open items piling up.
So an empty inbox is a signal, but it should be a reflection that you’ve organized and managed your world in a way that’s easy to stay on top of things.
I’ve been told that I both send and receive more email than many people at Microsoft are used to.
I call that out because what’s important is that my approach has been battle tested under extreme load.
I don’t want to share a fragile system that breaks, or one that requires a bunch of upkeep.
I want to share a simple system that has worked when I’ve been under the gun with many projects in flight with many hundreds of emails per day.
I call it the Zen of Zero Inbox because rather than an overloaded email inbox creating stress, it’s a peaceful, mindful experience.
Cornerstone Concepts for the Zen of the Zero Inbox
- Think of your email as a stream of potential action or reference
- Factor reference from action
- Use one folder for all read email
- Route out all email not directly to you or your immediate world (team, org … etc.)
- Triage incoming email to either Do It, Queue It, Schedule it, or Delegate it.
- Use daily tickler lists for action items
- Schedule items that will take time
- Create views using folders and copy (don’t fork) key mails
Thy Why Behind the Approach
- If you keep your inbox empty, you avoid paper shuffling (reviewing the same mail more than once, scrolling up and down for actions .. Etc.)
- If you keep all your read mail in one folder, you can quickly search, sort, group, … etc.
- If you keep a daily tickler list for action, you have a place for action items from your mails.
- If you use your daily tickler list for action, you can quickly set your sequence and priorities vs. react to your mail stream.
- If you create views by coping key mails into folders, then you keep the integrity of your one folder for all read mail.
- If you don’t have to worry about deleting your mail or forking to folders, you avoid death by a 1000 paper cuts. (You can always delete later if you must, but batch and defer it. Otherwise, that little moment of hesitation robs you over time.)
The Beauty of an Empty Email Inbox (Zen in Action)
An empty email inbox is goodness. I always keep my inboxes empty.
And I get a lot of email.
A whole lot.
Directly to me, CC me, and that’s not counting any of all the various distribution lists that I’m on.
But I always keep an empty email inbox so that I’m ready for any incoming mail.
A Short Story: You Drive Your Email or Your Email Drives You
When I first joined Microsoft, I noticed a lot of people swamped in mail. With distributed teams, tough schedules and lots of information to share, email is the tool of choice.
For better or worse, it’s been the universal tool for personal knowledge bases, instant messaging, and dashboards of action and results.
One of my early managers had a simple rule – “don’t fail at the basics.”
If you do a great job at everything else, but fail at administration, you’ll hold yourself back. He was right. I saw some of the best potential fail at the basics.
I refused to let email become my Achilles heel.
While most people were swamped, I noticed a few colleagues not only survived, but thrived. I got curious. I learned from them. I studied their principles, patterns, and practices that made these masters of action effective.
I decided I wanted two things: 1) I wanted the most effective techniques. 2) I wanted to spend the least time possible.
I put many, many systems to the test. Ultimately, I favored simplicity and flexibility over complicated and restrictive. I learned a lot of lessons along the way. Ultimately, the most important lesson I learned was …
… You drive your mail or your mail drives you!
One Folder for All the Mail You Have Read
If you internalize the idea of “One place to look” it will serve you well. For me, I always wanted to know for sure that all emails sent to me were in one place.
So I made a folder called “Read” where I would move all my mail into. This way I only touch my mail once.
Many email systems have since adopted an approach like this, where the use one folder to archive the mail you read:
- Gmail has the All Mail folder
- Outlook Live has an Archive folder
- iCloud Mail has an Archive folder
One Filter to Rule Out Everything Not to You
So many people end up buried under a lot of email that’s more context than core to their world.
It might seem urgent, but it’s not as important.
The key is to make it easy to see the important emails sent directly to you.
To do that, if you have a rules system, the main idea is to filter so that only mail sent TO you or CC you or to an immediate alias part of your world makes it to you.
A little backstory here is I used to have 99 rules. When I went to add my 100th rule, Outlook did not support it at the time.
I begged the product team to add it for me, but they said they couldn’t add it just for me.
So I completely flipped my paradigm. Instead of adding more rules, what if I simply focused on one great rule to rule them all.
And so I did.
To-Dos: Tickler Lists for Actions
The big idea here is that part of keeping your email inbox empty is that you extract your action items from your emails.
Otherwise, you will be paper shuffling and that’s exactly how your email inbox dies the death of a 1,000 paper cuts.
Don’t hide or spread a bunch of action items across a bunch of emails.
Consolidate them into a single list that you can easily switch in and out of, and easy add or modify.
I used to actually just keep an open email to myself or use Notepad and as I read quickly through my email, I would pull out the action items, or translate mushy ideas into real actions.
I’ve noticed some people try to manage their actions with an action item in this email and an action item in that email and they are constantly looking for needles in haystacks.
What I do is I take all the needles out so my new haystack is nothing but needles.
If I ever need the original email, I can go find it (because they are all in my one folder)
Schedule Items You Need Time For
This is another place people get stuck. They try to process a bunch of their emails, but next thing you know they can’t answer this one yet, or respond to that one yet, and they pile up.
Now they are paper shuffling again.
The simplest thing I realized is that if I can’t close something out fast, I can do a couple of smart things:
- I can grab a bunch of them and process them as batch. All I do is schedule an appointments, say “Backstop Thursday” for example. And in that hour or so block, just plan on nailing them all there.
- If something is a really meaty task and needs my undivided attention and some real focus for real progress, then I can schedule it with it’s own block of time. A power move in Outlook is to drag and drop the email onto the Calendar icon and it will automatically pop up a Calendar appointment. How cool is that?
- If I think a few more strokes of genius or some divine inspiration might strike me and I can rip through it faster later, only then will I let it simmer in my inbox. But I want it gone by end of day. If it’s not, then I schedule a block of time for it (by dragging it onto my Calendar icon).
Reference Views (Folder with Copies of Key Emails)
Long ago I realized how simple and cheap it was just o make copies of my emails versus forking my inbox.
I always wanted one simple email archive where I could quickly scroll through or search for what I need.
And, I wanted to be able to quickly browse a collection of reference folders that have copies of key emails so I don’t have to hunt for them.
There are lots of potential power moves here, but the main idea is to simply copy emails that you will end up referring to a lot into a consolidated folder, so that you can access them faster.
A Note About the 4Ds and Respond
Unfortunately, at the time when I first created my email system in the late 90’s, the Inbox Zero system wasn’t available.
I believe the Inbox Zero has a mnemonic to remember how to act on email:
In my Zen of Zero Inbox email management system, I use the following:
- Do It
- Queue It
- Schedule It
- Delegate It
I like the memorability of the 4Ds, now that I heard of them, but I find that in practice, I still align better with my Do It, Queue It, Schedule It, Delegate It approach.
I don’t Delete because I found that created decision fatigue and sometimes regretting deleting things I found I later needed.
Storage is cheap, so batch delete only when I need to.
By Do It, I really mean just do whatever I need to for a given email, provided it’s something I can tackle quickly, usually following the “3 Minutes for Less” rule.
I get a lot of emails that are informational, so Do It, simply means read it.
If there are action items, I will very quickly pluck them out, and effectively Queue It, by adding to my To Do list, which I keep separate from my inbox.
By keeping a separate To Do List, I have more control over how I sequence my actions, as well as what I let go.
If I have an action item that requires a dedicated chunk of time, then I drag it onto my calendar to block time for it.
If I have a bunch of related items or similar thought work, I will add multiple action items to one calendar appointment.
I do regularly have a Thursday Backstop in the afternoon, where if I am behind on things, I will close things out.
Most of my email is to me for a reason so I don’t need to delegate that often, but I do call it out, because it happens, and I have been in situations where I had to Delegate It frequently.
My mail flow is to process my email once, and to make sure action items are organized where they belong as part of my To Do list, and that I use my calendar to block time for completing priorities.
Your Email is Chance to Create More Value
Really, the main pattern I keep in mind is that my incoming email stream is a chance to create more value.
I turn chores into chances.
I use my email as a simple way to reach out around the world to broker in help I need, or to learn about trends, insights, and best practices.
I respond to my emails quickly to make sure I don’t get buried alive and I use a simple system that scales to enormous email volumes so I don’t break under pressure.
I use an email system that was well informed by some of the best people I could find that were masters of information management.
I’ve refined my system over the past two decades, but the irony is that it really hasn’t changed much—the basics work.
I really am a fan of mastering the fundamentals and choosing strategies that are simple, effective and adaptable to any situation.
About 3 Times a Day (Give or Take)
It’s worth calling out that while I’m not a zealot about it, in general I check my email 3 times in a day.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but I think it’s important to note that mostly I can rely on clearing my inbox by diving in and out of it about 3 times a day.
When I dive in, I do have the mindset that I mean business. I am fast and furious with clear purpose.
This clarity backed with a simple system means that I can spend very little time in my email inbox, while extracting and creating the most value, and staying on top of what matters most.
I’m using email loosely here, because really that includes diving into the multiple communication channels we have these days, including the chatty ones.
While I don’t get to control all the facets of the communication game, I try to be very deliberate with the parts that I do get to control and I try to leverage proven practices where I can.
I have found that in this way, by really using high energy when I process my email, I can actually create momentum, and I find that generating energy can then have a profound effective in other areas of my day.
I find the opposite is also true. If I have low energy, I can easily get buried or bogged down in things, and I remind myself that sometimes the best thing I can do is first refresh or renew myself than blast through things.
You ability to generate energy and to harness and funnel and focus it is one of your greatest ways to amplify your impact and generate exponential results.
And that is the Zen of Zero Email!
Wow, looking back., I was lucky that I mastered email early on. I had so many great mentors to learn from about how to organization information better.
I learned from so many very smart people that were masters of email.
The funny thing is that when I coach teams on Agile Results, if I happen to mention that I’ve coached people to keep a zero inbox, suddenly they want me to do my Zen of Zero Inbox training.
I know that when individuals and teams can keep their email inbox empty, they reach a new level of sanity and clarity.
I know it’s made a big difference for all the people I’ve mentored that were swimming in their inbox.
Hopefully, these simple ideas help more people rise and shine above their inbox.
Doing great work is so much more than managing email, but if you can manage email well, it really makes a lot more space for doing your best work.
You Might Also Like
How To Clear Your Inbox
The Agile Results Guide
How a Warm-Up Routine Improves Your Productivity
How To Use Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection to Triple Your Productivity
Productivity Solutions at a Glance