You Can Inbox Zero

One of my favorite writers, Taylor Lorenz, has decided that 2019 is the year she’s giving up on email.

“In 2019, I suggest you let it all go. There is simply no way for anyone with a full-time job and multiple inboxes to keep up with the current email climate. Even after deleting and sorting my 2,700 unread messages, I awoke the next day to more than 400 more. The writer Emily Dreyfuss told me she has more than 300,000 unread messages in her inbox. After complaining about my email problem publicly on Facebook, friends in fashion, tech, corporate finance, law, advertising, and retail all bemoaned their multiple inboxes swelling with messages.”

I am nowhere near as popular or famous as Lorenz and she gets significantly more email than I do. And I still get a lot of email. But, probably because I’m not as famous or as popular, I can’t give up on my email. My boss will get mad and I’ll never write again.

Here’s my first unpopular hot take of 2019: Email isn’t that bad.

A few years ago, my brother challenged me to inbox zero. I didn’t care much about the email thing. I did care a lot about besting my brother in any sort of competition. So I started figuring out how to manage my email better.

It took some time, but my inboxes (all of them) are pretty manageable and I don’t really spend that much time on email.

Inbox zero does not mean reading and replying to every single email you get every day. It means dealing with every email you get. And that can mean filing things away to do later or even not replying at all. Don’t cheat. You can’t just move your whole inbox to a folder and call it inbox zero (well you can, if you want, but you’re just avoiding the issue). You have to set up a system for processing your email.

Step One: Get less email

I doubt all of Lorenz’s 2,700 unread messages were all personal emails addressed to her. Likely a lot were bullshit mailing lists, newsletters, press releases and god knows what else. It’s so easy to kill all of this.

When you get a newsletter and you don’t want it, unsubscribe immediately. Gmail can sometimes make this really easy, by including a little unsubscribe link next to the sender’s email address. Otherwise, it’s usually at the bottom of the email. It takes a minute, but after the first few weeks of doing this, you will notice a change in the amount of mail you receive.

If you’re getting spammed by crazy PR people or your alumni office or anything else which isn’t an actual mailing list (i.e. someone is copying and pasting a bunch of email addresses every time) you can send those right to the garbage. See Step Two.

Step Two: Filter what you do get

Some newsletters you might want to stay on. Create a filter (you can do this in both Gmail and Outlook) to automatically send those to a folder, thus skipping your inbox. Put a reminder on your to do list to daily/weekly/whatever to check that box.

I have a few newsletter about writing opportunities. Those go into one folder and I check that once a day usually. I have another for general newsletters friends send out (for their companies, etc.) which I check once a week just to keep up to date with them.

You can use email addresses, keywords, etc. to filter by. Filter out anything that says press releases. Filter anything that comes from your family. My accountant, who is lovely, has the tendency to send me eight separate emails with simple questions, has her own folder which I only check when I’m doing business administration.

This will take some time to set up, though Gmail makes this super easy, but once you get through that first round, it’s so much better and easy to maintain.

Step Three: Set Expectations

The article goes on to say:

“But if you respond quickly, you have a reputation for being responsive, people send you more messages, and it kind of feeds on itself.”

This is so true and is a thing it took me awhile to learn. If you are a person who replies quickly to email, then you are a person who will be emailed a lot. You don’t ever email that guy in your office who never, ever replies, right? You walk down the hall or pick up the phone.

Now, I’m of the mind that not replying is a dick move. I don’t mean that Lorenz needs to reply to my email, asking her if she’s read this blog post, because obviously she doesn’t have a professional obligation to do so. I do think you’re (mostly, we’ll get to this later) professionally obligated to reply to your colleagues’ messages.

That doesn’t mean you have to reply immediately. Outlook allows you to schedule send messages, and Gmail has add ons for doing so. (I think if you’re replying to something that’s not an emergency outside of work hours, you should schedule everything during actual work hours, especially if you’re emailing subordinates. Otherwise it creates the impression you want a reply at 11PM.) The schedule send feature also allows you to “answer” your email and check that task off of your to do list, without responding immediately, likely inviting more email.

I, usually, write the response and leave it in my drafts until I want to send it. I do this mostly because I manage a few inboxes and I find it’s easier to keep track of, but scheduling for later works great for some people.

I decide what and who to reply to depending on who the person and what the topic is. If something will take awhile, I will usually do a quick reply to say “I’m working on it and I’ll get back to you next week/next month/etc.” If whatever it is will take less than a week, I don’t send that. The recipient doesn’t need more email and I don’t need their “Thanks” response.

Disabuse yourself of the notion that you need to reply to everything you get. This took some serious work for me because I’ve been taught that you need to reply to your email or you’re not a good person or some BS. You don’t. Colleagues that CC you on random stuff? Read and archive. People who repeatedly email you with questions they can answer themselves? Same. People who email you trying to get in touch with someone else? Sometimes I’ll forward it, sometimes not. Depends on my mood. When I think people are asking an absurdly out of line favor? Ignore.

I do have some standard responses I use for things, like when someone pitches me a story that should go to my editor. Gmail has canned responses. In Outlook, I keep a folder in drafts.

Step Four: Don’t Use Email As A To Do List

Set up a file called “To Do,” put emails that you need to reply to but can’t (because you need to run a report/think about it/etc.) in that folder, put the action on your to do list and move on with your life.

If you keep your email constantly open and keep using it to dictate your schedule, it’s going to stress you out, knowing there’s all this stuff to reply to and it’s much easier to get distracted by other stuff in your inbox. Also, it creates this idea in your head that finishing those small tasks are the most important things you can do, rather than focusing on the big picture stuff.

Step Five: You Decide When To Check Your Email

Once you’ve done everything above, your inbox is going to be a lot lighter.

If you’re in an office, once a day is probably the minimum. I do twice. Once in the morning, to see what needs to be done that day and to clean up anything that came in over night (unsubscribe, file, etc.) and then in the afternoon before I make my to do list for the following day. Now I know how to gauge what I need to do tomorrow.

I close my email and use my phone as a notifier for when I get new email, which I skim just make sure there isn’t anything that’s an emergency throughout the day. Some people prefer the pop-up notification or just keeping your Gmail tab open, find the process that works for you. When I need to concentrate on something, I just literally turn my phone over so I can’t see the notification. Easy.

I turn my email notifications off during non-office hours as well. Also, I direct anyone who messages me on literally any other platform for a work-related topic to email me instead. For the love of god, don’t message me on Facebook for work. I never check my Facebook messages. Also, I log into LinkedIn maybe once or twice a month, so I rarely seen anything on there.

This, again, goes back to managing expectations. Once people know you won’t answer them on Whatsapp or Facebook, they go first to your email.

I started all of this a few years ago when my email was much, much more out of control and stressful. Now it is not. I inbox zero nearly every day and I don’t find email annoying or stressful.