The Zen of Zero Inbox: How To Keep Your Inbox Empty

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“Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.“ – Bruce Lee

You too can have a zero mail 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 mail 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 Approach for Keeping  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.

Cornerstone Concepts

  1. Think of your mail as a stream of potential action or reference
  2. Factor reference from action
  3. Use one folder for all read mail
  4. Route out all mail not directly to you or your immediate world (team, org … etc.)
  5. Triage incoming mail to either do it, queue it, schedule it, or delegate it.
  6. Use daily tickler lists for action items
  7. Schedule items that will take time
  8. 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.)

Empty Inbox – Zen in Action

An empty inbox is goodness.   I always keep my inboxes empty.   No clutter.  No noise.

And I get a lot of email.  A lot.   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 inbox so that I’m ready for any incoming mail.

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A Short Story:  You Drive Your Mail or Your Mail 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.

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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
  • etc.

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.

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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 inbox empty is that you extract your action items.

Don’t hide or spread a bunch of action items across a bunch of emails.

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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) Smile

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.

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The simplest thing I realized is that if I can’t close something out fast, I can do a couple of smart things:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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 Mails

Long ago I realized how simple and cheap it was just o make copies of my mails 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 mails 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.

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And that is the Zen of Zero Mail!

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.

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