2 Steps To An Empty Inbox

We entrepreneurs are slaves to our inboxes. Yes? And we seem to be okay with it because the email just keeps piling up.

We could spend all day answering email! But let’s not. There’s a smarter way to manage this.

While the elusive Inbox Zero may not be your main goal, holding on to unanswered or unprocessed email is a drain on your mental energy.

My crazy inbox while on vacation last summer.

My crazy inbox while on vacation last summer.

A couple of months ago, I achieved Inbox Zero and maintained it for three weeks – until I went away for a week. The messages piled up! I couldn’t seem to get my inbox down to fewer than 30 or 40 messages.

Now, two weeks after that trip, I have again mastered my inbox. I paid close attention to my steps so that I could share them with you.

Use this process when your inbox is more than you can handle and you see no way out. It may take you a couple of hours, but you only have to do it once and then maintain the discipline on a daily basis.

STEP 1: Delete Freely

Yes, you might miss something when you delete freely, but this is a necessary step when you’re overloaded with email messages. You simply can’t give new stuff the attention it deserves until you clear out the detritus.

Be ruthless deleting the four types of messages in this step! Be okay with the fact that you might miss something, but understand that something newer and better awaits your attention.

1. Delete subscription messages.

You subscribe to my newsletter and others to gain more knowledge. But when they’re just sitting in your inbox, they’re not doing you any good.

If you haven’t read them by now . . . Delete!

2. Delete anything you can find online.

If you can find something on Google when you most need it, there’s no reason to hang onto an email about the same subject. Delete!

3. Delete anything more than 3 months old.

Email is pretty immediate. If it’s 2 weeks old, it might be out of date. But 3 months is beyond the limit.

Delete!

4. Delete the jokes that Uncle Harvey sends you or the dire warnings that Aunt Ann thinks will save your life.

We all have Uncle Harveys and Aunt Anns in our family. Bless their hearts. They pass along every little thing they think is funny or could save your life.

You know that if Aunt Ann would only look it up on SNOPES she would discover she is passing on misleading information. Still, you don’t have time to educate her. You have an inbox to empty. Delete!

STEP 2: Process Remaining Email

Set aside a block of time to process your email, meaning that you concentrate on taking care of each message as you read it. No more “checking” email now and dealing with it later.

First, sort your email with the oldest message on top. Start there and work your way down to the present.

Then, with each message, you have 5 choices of action. You can:

  1. Respond to the email.
  2. Turn it into a task for your to-do list.
  3. Delete it.
  4. Flag it for action later in the day. (Don’t let the flags pile up!)
  5. Archive it.

To maintain an empty inbox, process your email like this at least once a day.

That’s it! If you process each message as you have it on your screen, you will achieve (and maintain) Inbox Zero in no time.

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20 comments to 2 Steps To An Empty Inbox

  • tori

    Hi, if you have unlimited storage in your email account, I don’t see any point in deleting unwanted email; it’s just more work. I use the search tool and flag tool to find emails I want to read again. I have over 30,000 messages in my email account, but it doesn’t matter. The cumulative time it would have taken to delete them over the years would have been substantial–say it takes 10 seconds each (time spent thinking about whether to delete each one, plus hitting the button–the decision requires reading email I might never have even read)– with 30,000 emails it would take 83 hours.

    For my personal domain email, I use the address only for business. I do delete any unnecessary mail from there because storage is limited, but most of the mail to that address is stuff I want to keep.

    • Tori: I’m glad this works for you. Most of my clients think of email as visual clutter, which is distracting for them and eats into their creativity. Obviously you don’t need to worry about this. You have a system that works for you.

  • sd

    tori makes an excellent point in using your business’ email only for business email, not Uncle Harvey’s jokes and the latest deals from Kohl’s.

    I do take issue, though, with item 3 (“Delete anything more than 3 months old.”). Granted, life as an entrepreneur is different from work as a cubicle-dweller, but I can think of dozens of reasons why an email might need to exist more than 90 days after it was sent. Many times emails contain the context for attachments or other bits of information (“Who is Jane Doe of Acme Company, and why do I have her number in my Contacts?”) and agreements and decisions made during long-duration projects.

    The organization at which I worked had rules about deleting email every 6 months and even that was not enough. Inbox Zero was a dream there, but even the six-month interval sometimes was hard to honor.

  • My problem is checking my email too often, EVERY time I see that little (1). I can’t stop doing it; it’s like a disease and really wastes my time. To counter this, I’ve set up “email checking times”. I only check in the morning, at lunch, and at the end of the day. I can still respond to people in a timely manner but it doesn’t eat up all my attention.

  • Hi Alyson,This post came at a perfect time for me because I just committed one of the ultimate sins of marketing. I sent you an unsolicited newsletter recently. In error, an old email list was used instead of the undated one which does not include your name. I am sure that I went right in the trash. Mea culpa. Many lessons to be learned.

  • “There’s 100+ ways to get to the other side of a street/road.”

    Alyson’s main point (i.e., which I appreciate) is a huge inbox can be a mental drain on your productivity/creativity. The same can be said about paperwork or “items” on your desk/workspace. Use the “touch it once” procedure… and you’re one step closer to a less cluttered environment.

    We’re all different and what works for some might do the opposite for another. Here’s a TIP that might work for those of you who have more than one e-mail account.

    I have all e-mails from 6 different web-based accounts forwarded to one main generic/unnamed web-based e-mail account. I have e-mail accounts besides my business (e.g., Craigslist, Political, Personal, etc) so that the e-mail account is tailored to the intended audience/use. When I respond, I can change the “From” to the unique e-mail address the incoming e-mail was addressed.

    I can keep up-to-date with my main “Generic In-box”. If I need an archive (i.e., which I feel is IMPORTANT – storage is cheap and easy to search) I can log into the original mailbox and search. Simply, this CYA.

    I hope others and/or Alyson find this a useful way to “cross the street/road” of e-mail insanity.
    Peace always,
    Thomas.

  • Great advice…I’m not sure I get to “zero” very often (if ever) but I do keep my inbox pretty clean. My tip is that when I want to delete a bunch of stuff, the easiest way is to first sort by sender (one of the options for how to view the emails, in yahoo at least) and go down your list in that mode. This organizes your thinking, and also you can easily see the thread of a correspondence and what you need to save. So often there are multiple emails spread out over days about the same topic–but the whole thread is usually there in just the most recent email. So I save that one (to a file, if the conversation is important, but over) and delete the rest. The fewer emails you have saved, the easier it is to find what you need when you have to search for something.

    • Rebecca: Great tip! The new Apple Mail automatically threads the conversations in your inbox, which took me awhile to get used to, but it’s pretty cool.

      I find organizing by name and then again by subject helps you a lot. Junk mail often has similar subjects and you can see them all together. Easier to delete!

  • tori

    Another organizational tip is to use folders. Emails from certain addresses go to specific folders (I set these up for addresses from which I get a lot of email). The main window shows when each folder has new messages. This keeps my main inbox free of getting tons of messages from these addresses.

    Messages are grayed out after they are opened, so, I don’t feel the need to delete unless they are irritating messages that I do not want to “stain” my inbox.

  • The newsletter asked “Are you a slave to your inbox?” As soon as I clicked on the message I was ASHAMED. You see, I clicked on the artbizblog newsletter on my smartphone, having just arrived at my studio after having hired a babysitter in order to go do some painting. I could have just left it there, but no, I had to click. YES, I AM A SLAVE TO MY EMAIL. Afterwards I thought “Would Alyson have wanted me to do that?” and the answer was a resounding “NO!!!”. :)

    • Michelle: So your new mantra is “I am getting better about processing my email at times that are convenient for me. I don’t need to check every message when it comes in.”

  • Alyson, Very helpful reminder with some great immediate and concrete steps to get started. My inbox has been empty since reading your article (for 5 days now – yeah!) except for one lone email reminding me to attend a film documentary on Wednesday night (Access to the Danger Zone – about Doctors w/o Borders working in combat zones.) Everything else is in newly created folders or sent into the ether. Love that ether! Love what you do, too, Mary Nagel Klein.

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