I’ve been at inbox zero for over two weeks now. Have I crossed the threshold into email transcendence?
Chasing inbox zero has been the bane of my daily routine for YEARS. My email load has gone up and down over the last five years doing Princess Lasertron, but whether it’s a busy time or a slow time I’ve never felt like I had control over my inbox. I never felt fully good about how I was communicating–I either felt terrible knowing how many people I owed responses to, or I felt anxious worrying about the next wave of replies to come in. I think it’s absolutely true that I missed out on sales or great media relationships because I just didn’t reply to an email in time.
In my case, I receive about 200 emails each day, 60-70 of which require a response. In the last two weeks or so I’ve consistently kept my emails under control. It helped to see the way I handle email as a bad habit to be reformed.
First I identified the bad habits I had fallen into when it came to managing my email:
- Waiting until I have a block of time to answer all of my email at once (time that will never come)
- Taking too much time to write the perfect responses (recipients don’t care)
- And I also struggled with inbox disorganization, and too many deal site/facebook notifications/spammy emails I never intended to even open.
Here are the steps I took to get to inbox zero:
- First, I freely admit, I cheated. I started with an inbox of about 160 and dictated email responses to my assistant who typed them out and sent them after I proofread. This is not a practice I condone full-time, and it’s not a habit I’m getting into at all. I just needed this boost to take care of some of the emails that needed longer responses and had been fermenting in my inbox for weeks. Get a friend to help you with this, or a spouse, or a brother, or SOMEONE. It helps so much to have a neutral party filter your responses into a well-written email with just the facts, ma’am.
- After my assistant helped me pare down the doozies of the bunch, I answered all the rest as quickly as possible one night. I went to Old Chicago which has the best late-night happy hour, ordered a pizza and a beer, and did nothing but respond to emails for about four hours. No talking. No twitter. Just answer and enjoy snacks. Here are the rules I stuck to:
- Whenever you can, answer with one-sentence or 140-character responses. This applies to close friends and family members especially.
- Delete Facebook notifications after a quick glance. Don’t click away into Facebook to leave a comment like “haha” or “I agree.” This is a time suck.
- Mark deal e-mails as spam because they are cluttering your workspace. In Gmail, you can go back and look at them later in your spam folder if you really need to. Don’t continue to waste time opening them or taking the time to delete them.
- Reply in your own voice, as you would normally talk, as if the sender had called you on the phone. This keeps emails friendly and prevents you from writing a novel.
- I’ve started calling people who need long responses. When I get them on the phone, I don’t open with small talk–I just say “I wanted to call you real quick about that email” and keep it under five minutes.
- I have my husband drive when we go out places, and I use the time in the passenger seat to send easy replies.
- I use “canned responses” in Google Labs to write form letters to reply to common emails I get. If you aren’t already, use the canned responses as the outline of an email you can tailor to each individual recipient.
- I feel less guilty about deleting impersonal emails that don’t necessitate a response.
- Above all, I remember how awesome it feels to end the day with an empty inbox. When an email comes in, I think about my response as I continue to work, then reply quickly and succinctly and forget about it.
As an addendum, I want to share tips about how to receive a quick reply.
- If it’s a short question and the recipient is active on Twitter, send a tweet first. They’re easy to respond to quickly without interrupting work flow. (I don’t feel the same way about Facebook messages, however. That’s something I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on in the comments.)
- If you can, ask the full question in the subject line.
- Avoid writing long walls of text in emails, get to the point.
- If you don’t need a response right away, close the email with “response not urgent” or “response not needed.”
- Don’t say “I was wondering if,” or “Do you think that you could possiblyâ€¦” or “Would you be able to get a chance to…” Instead, just ask the question and close with an appreciative sentence or phrase. It can be scary to be so frank, but I think it’s good to be that way in life in general.
- Finally, be assured that people appreciate thoughtful emails. There is a need for brevity in professional correspondence, but when sending a compliment or a friendly letter, by all means say what you mean to say. In this post I’m mostly talking about business correspondence, but I love to write a long letter every once in a while.
Re-reading this post, I sound like I’m floundering in the waves of email hell, but answering them quickly and succinctly without overthinking has left me so much more time to do things I like, things that make money, and things with my family, which is my entire goal. If you’ve seen the idiotic tweets I’ve been making or reading me going on and on about Law and Order, you know I’ve been enjoying a little extra free time.
So this is going to be one of those slapped-together posts because I just want to get this all written out tonight before I go to bed. This is the kind of piece that I would normally spend 3-5 hours working on because I want it to be retweeted and shared and discussed, but I’m letting go of those needs and breaking my over-editing habit and it feels SO GOOD to let go of the anxiety.