Do you empty your inbox every day? If not, congratulations! You're normal. And you know how much of a headache “normal” can be.
“Inbox Zero” been the single best habit I've mastered this year. As you can see on my Coach.me results page, I've emptied my inbox every single day this year so far:
You can do it too—read how below—and I want to encourage you to both believe that it's possible, and prompt you to take action.
When you have a backlog of emails clogging your inbox, inefficiencies and problems start to creep into your work:
- People track you down in person to get a response
- You're out of the loop on key discussions
- You have work waiting for you that you don't even know about, so you can't plan realistically
- You experience more stress than you would if your inbox was empty daily
No one particularly wants to have hundreds of unresolved emails sitting around, but they're hard to get rid of. Here are three specific problems that plague most school leaders when it comes to email—and how you can resolve them.
Unfinished Work That Needs To Be Organized And Scheduled
Email is a communication medium, and at work, people use email to communicate about work.
It's essential to keep this core purpose in mind, so I'll repeat it: Email isn't for managing the work itself; it's for communicating about work.
Of course, you'll never be completely done with all of your work. But remember: clearing your inbox isn't the same as doing all of the work that you're communicating about.
As a professional with an information-intensive job, you need a better system to track and organize your work. I highly recommend using an electronic task management app like ToDoist.
When you get an email that represents work, if it'll take substantial offline or non-email work—in other words, if it's an involved task, and one that requires more than a quick reply—forward it to your to-do list.
ToDoist (and a few other good apps) can receive email at special addresses and add them to your to-do list (or even a specific project list) so your work can be more organized, and your inbox can be empty.
And if it's a time-sensitive task, you can take advantage of ToDoist's integration with Google Calendar to actually mark off time on your calendar to work on it.
For example, if I get an email about something we'll need to discuss at an upcoming staff meeting, I have two choices:
- I can keep it in my inbox until I'm ready to create the final agenda for the meeting (at which point I probably won't remember to look for the email), OR
- I can forward it to [email protected] (or whatever) and it'll appear on my “Staff Meeting Agenda” project in the ToDoist app
Which option do you think will help me get an empty inbox? If you're not using ToDoist or another app that can receive email, give it a try.
Issues That Can't Be Handled Today
Sometimes you don't need to turn an email into a task, lest you merely shift the problem of overload from one app to another. Sometimes an email is all you need.
Let's say someone has a question for you, but you won't be able to answer it until new information arrives tomorrow. Where should that original email hang out in the meantime?
If you let it remain in your inbox, more messages like it will continue to pile up, and getting caught up will become more and more difficult.
The solution? Snooze it. If you've seen my Future File Guide for paper, you know the drill: decide when you want to see a document again, put it in a certain folder, and simply check today's folder every day. You can do the same for email.
With a service like FollowUpThen, you can “snooze” emails to a certain time or date in the future.
Sign up, then you can simply forward messages to special addresses like “[email protected]” and you'll get the message sent back to you tomorrow. “[email protected]” will get it back to you on July 30, “[email protected]” will get it back to you next time 1pm rolls around, and so on.
Let's face it: some of what's in your inbox is there because you can't bear to get rid of it, even though you're not really sure what to do with it.
If you use Gmail, you can archive it and not worry that it'll be lost, but even so, you may want to have a record that's not part of your email account.
What can you do? Forward it to Evernote. Now used by more than 100 million people, Evernote is a searchable database for notes, emails, file attachments, and images that will let you save critical documentation easily, and find it again later just as easily.
Like the other services I've recommended above, Evernote can receive email, so getting data into it is as simple as hitting “forward.”
Outlook Vs. The Cloud
You might have noticed that some of these features, like turning an email into a task or appointment, or saving it outside of your inbox, are things that old-fashioned Microsoft Outlook can do.
That's true, but today's tools are vastly better—enough better that it's worth using multiple tools to achieve the same ends.
More importantly, though, these tools, unlike Outlook, work perfectly whether you're handling email on your phone, your tablet, your school desktop computer, a laptop—any device, with any apps on it, can let you process email this way.
Always Hit Zero
The tools are helpful, but what really matters is behavior: the commitment to clearing every email from in your inbox every day.
It's OK if messages pile up throughout the day; it's inevitable, and you have much better things to do than monitor your inbox all day. But once per day, make sure you get totally caught up: documentation saved, tasks noted in ToDoist, and other messages snoozed until a better time.
The astute reader will note that we've hit all three points of the High-Performance Triangle:
- Strategy (for effectiveness): Empty your inbox daily so you stay current and well-organized
- Tools (for efficiency): The apps I've described above
- Habits (for consistency): Making it a daily commitment so you can trust your systems