Is it possible to have Inbox Zero?
Well, that depends on your definition of Zero!
Triage is a medical term used to facilitate treatment according to the degree of urgency. The term triage originated from the French verb trier which means to sort according to a pre-determined system of criteria. Triage is prioritization by immediate importance.
The principle of medical triage can be used for emails and many other aspects of getting and staying organized. But let’s just concentrate on emails this month. It is possible to take control of your inbox and get it to zero by the end of the day if, and only if, you set up a prioritization system.
As a Professional Organizer/Productivity Consultant, I’ve received many calls for help stemming from an overflowing inbox. After 25 years, I shouldn’t be surprised by the number of unread emails, but I am! For many of my clients, emails just keep piling up and the bold number in parentheses (unread emails) is often in the hundreds. This signals that some stuff–urgent or otherwise–slipped through the cracks and opportunities missed.
Conquering Email Influx
Remember, that not all emails are created equal. Some are urgent, some are for reference, some are trash. Achieving an Inbox Zero status requires a logical Triage policy that allows you to quickly deal with messages to prevent an accumulation within the inbox. The basic email triage system includes only three (3) categories:
- Emails that do not need attention
- Emails that need attention, but not right away
- Emails that will create chaos and stress if not taken care of asap
Pareto Principle — the 80/20 rule: The majority of emails (80%) require minimal amount of time to deal with them while the remaining 20% are far more important and will consume 80% of your focus.
Taking into consideration the Pareto Principle, 80% of our emails require little to no attention and have a minimal urgency rating. So, attack those quickly and be done with them leaving the majority of your time for the most important emails, the final 20%. See below to discover a way to automatically have emails transferred directly into their own folders.
Remember, the inbox is a temporary home for the influx of emails. As you begin to scan emails, ask yourself the three questions above to determine which action needs to take place — move to a subfolder, copy into a document, schedule on calendar, delete…
Rules of Inbox Management
Category #1: Emails that do not need your attention should be deleted, moved to an archived subfolder, or filed in its appropriate document by simply a copy/paste action.
Category #2: Emails that require some action, but not right now, need minimal attention. Just move these emails into an appropriate subfolder titled Action Required, Awaiting response, or Delegated and set reminders for a certain date and time to review them again. Some email systems allow you to simply drag the email to a different folder, the calendar or a to-do list making it easy to set reminders.
Category #3: These are the important emails that required focused attention. In the real world of a busy life it might not be possible to tackle a complicated email at the first moment you are reading it, so here comes the trick: Move it to the calendar on the date you plan to work on it along with a sufficient time block to accomplish the task. CHECK OUT the August post on Calendars where I mentioned that What gets scheduled gets done. To stay organized and control your time, live by this rule: Move important emails directly to your calendar.
Worried about lost emails?
After you have set up the required sub-folders and determined your triage system, there is always the fear of not being able to locate an email you thought was unimportant to later find out you needed that information.
The fastest way to find an hidden email is almost always by searching. Every email system has a search capability. Spend a few minutes to familiarize yourself with your email search parameters and let your computer do the work.
Now, Let me clarify
Inbox Zero doesn’t necessarily mean that your email inbox has no messages waiting for some type of action. It doesn’t mean that you managed to get everything done, every message taken care of, every action completed. That would be nearly impossible as well as impractical. In a blink of the eye, the next email message arrives. Turn your attention to something else more demanding and, bingo, more emails fill up the inbox.
So what can you do? Most emails systems can be set to automatically filter incoming emails and target them to a designated folder. I use separate folders for business, personal, projects and organizations I belong to. These rules can be set up by Sender, Subject line, or even specific wording within the body of the email. Outlook has a great system and if you need some help figuring it out, just let me know. Outlook is my choice email server.
Here is an example of a rule:
Emails that stem from members of the NAPO-CT Board (National Association for Productivity and Organizing Professionals–Connecticut Chapter — my peeps!) almost always start with NAPO-CT in the subject line. The rule I set up states that when ‘NAPO-CT or NAPO CT is in the subject line,’ my computer automatically transfers this email directly into the NAPO-CT folder. This rule works as soon as the email arrives, so it never lingers in the general inbox! Now I know where to go to access emails from my colleagues. Easy, effective and efficient!
Having rules for incoming emails automatically segregates certain emails from the rest of the influx which allows me to go directly to the specific folder to access emails that are important to me — a simple method of triage.
Setting up email rules and filters provides an automatic bypass of the general inbox by transferring the email into specific folders. Then you get to decide when will you access this folder and what action needs to occur. This is where your triage policy will come in handy, saving time and effort. You know where that email is resting without weeding through a ton of emails in the inbox.
And, while we are talking about emails, turn off alerts! Let your computer do the work of segregating emails according to your rules. When you are ready to deal with them, go directly to the specific folder and start working.