A zero inbox does wonders for productivity as well as the soul. When your inbox is organized, the clutter is gone and the noise has dissipated, it's extremely easy to stay on top of everything and get out in front of the days and weeks ahead.
Over the last few years I've read and watched countless articles and videos, each one explaining complicated methods for achieving that elusive zero inbox but by the time I got to the end of each lesson, I either didn't know where to start or there were so many moving parts that I immediately gave up, accepting that I just wasn't meant to be organized. It wasn't in me to have control of my email.
However, one day I woke up and decided to give it one more bash and one more push to see if it was something I could achieve. I closed all of my chrome tabs, switched off the YouTube static and struck out to create a more simple approach, one that wouldn't involve many steps, one that was easy to maintain.
And here it is:
Delete, block and unsubscribe
Action, archive and folders
Asana and follow-ups
Why I use Apple mail
Before we get into the weeds and go through the above 3 steps, I want to talk to you quickly about the email client itself.
I've used many clients over the years. Gmail, Outlook, Spark, Yahoo, Mozilla - but each and every time I took a new client or service out for a spin, I always ended back with Apple Mail.
Simply put, because it's straightforward, intuitive and clean.
Native apps in an ecosystem are generally designed to work perfectly with both the hardware and software they're injected into. And Apple mail is no different.
It's use of bold typography, pristine white backgrounds and clear and structured inboxes was a perfect springboard for me to launch into, and ultimately achieve a zero inbox.
You may have your own email client of choice and that's no problem at all. Regardless of your option, my inbox zero approach will fit the bill.
So let's get into it shall we?
Step 1: Delete, block and unsubscribe
The first task I tackle when I open up my email in the morning is to purge my inbox from unwanted and uninvited messages.
You know the type I'm talking about.
Cold sales pitches, special offer promotions, marketing prompts from company's you already deal with (sometimes these can be the worst kind - you already have a relationship with the company but you don't want to be bombarded with their weekly updates).
I go through all of them quickly one by one, deleting and unsubscribing (where necessary) in the process.
As I'm solely focused on removing the fat, it's a very fast task to accomplish as each email requires the same type of action.
When I'm finished, two things have happened.
Firstly, all of the unrequested noise has disappeared from my inbox allowing to me clearly see the emails that need to be actioned and secondly, I feel like I've already achieved something (even though it was just a simple purge). There's something satisfying about ticking off boxes and watching a list of items gradually decrease.
Performing this task first is also extremely important as it allows me to gain momentum. If I were to sit back in my chair and grant these emails loitering permission, they would slowly chip away at me, hiding any ground I had claimed throughout the day.
We're already one third of the way there and our coffee is still piping hot.
Step 2: Action all remaining emails in your inbox
Now that the fat is gone, it's time to get to real work. Before I dive straight in I quickly scan my inbox from top to bottom, surveying and weighing up everything that lies in wait.
Prioritization is key.
Jumping in and hammering out replies left, right and center would be the equivalent of riding a steam locomotive without any tracks. Sure, there's enough coal on the fire to power you all the way through but without a clear destination in sight and no tracks to guide the way, you may as well be riding blind, completely at the mercy of the elements with their thrashing and unpredictable nature.
You may be thinking to yourself, "but I already know the emails I'm about to face Keith. I sent replies yesterday and I've no doubt that all of those responses are what await me now".
And you might be right.
However, there could also be hidden emails that you didn't account for. Emails that were sent from a coworker or customer, requesting or initiating a brand new conversation.
Understanding that you have these in your inbox (regardless if you are going to get to them first) is very important. You don't want your coworker dropping over to see if you got their message. Likewise, you don't want that customer calling you up out of the blue mid morning asking for your response to their request and you don't have a clue that they even sent one.
Knowing what you have allows you to get ahead of it (even if it's just an acknowledgement of receipt). Clearing out the noise and performing this quick survey lets you see what you have and prepares you for what's to come.
Ok, so I've performed the quick survey and it's time to start.
I begin replying to all of the emails, archiving when complete or moving them into folders and sub folders if they are attached to a longer conversation or specific area of interest i.e. a high ticket customer.
Do you see what I'm doing here?
The goal is to get to inbox zero. Some emails are one and done's and do not need to be stored whilst others needs to be filed away for further use and retrieval.
If you email me and I respond to you, guess what, you're no longer in my inbox anymore.
And now you might be saying to yourself, "But Keith, if you archive one and done emails and file away others into folders and sub folders, how will you ever know to come back to them? What if a customer doesn't reply to your outgoing message? You've filed it away, you'll never find it again!"
That's where you're wrong young Padawan.
I track every email and correspondence in Project Management software. I know exactly who you are, what you want and when to reach out to you again if you don't respond to my message.
Which leads me to the third and final step.
Step 3: Asana and follow-ups
Every email is added to a To-Do List project in Asana (my preferred project management software of choice).
I'll get into the breakdown for how to setup a perfectly organized Asana account in a future blog post (so remember to subscribe) but essentially, I have a blank project or space in Asana with a simple list of tasks containing all of my email correspondence, one underneath the other.
Every correspondence has it's own to-do task which contains their email address, a brief overview of what the correspondence was about as well as a due date and importantly, what to do on said due date.
I have a customer called Carrie. Carrie works for XYZ company and she has reached out to me to request product pricing.
So, looking at my inbox, Carrie's email can no longer be found right? I replied to Carrie, gave here the necessary information and then filed her away into a sub folder in my inbox.
However, when her task is due in Asana (I always keep a 'today' view of my due tasks open in my web browser), I copy her email address from the task, paste it into the search bar in my email client and bam! Her last correspondence (regardless of where it is in my inbox) pops up into view.
I read the note I left myself in her task (e.g. did Carrie reply to my pricing information? If not, prompt again) and then check to see where the email thread is at. If there is no response from Carrie, I quickly send her a polite prompt, move the thread back into it's folder and update her task in Asana with the latest info, moving the due date for another 24 or 48 hours depending on when I think it's appropriate to contact her again.
Then, in 24 or 48 hours (depending on when I reset the due date for the task), I repeat the process with Carrie until the conversation ultimately moves forward or is closed and archived altogether.
I actually add a lot more detail in Asana (sections, correspondence email content, precise formatting, internal and external correspondence, tags and filters) but as I mentioned above, that's a blog post for another day. I don't want to bombard you with too much information. The point of this post is to show you the 3 simple steps I take to get and keep my inbox at zero.
And that's all there really is to it. The email client is effectively the vessel that delivers and purges my messages but the project management software is the mothership. It guides me and tells me what to do and when to do it.
If I feed the project management software with the right amount of information and set it to a timely calendar date, I will never miss a thread, prompt or reply again. My inbox will always be empty, free from its constraints, allowing me to pursue my goal of pure productivity.
Now that you're equipped with the 3 simple steps needed to get to inbox zero, check out the blog post below where I delve into the 5 benefits of having an empty inbox.