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  • Writer's pictureKieran Bailey

Weekly Inbox Zero Routine

An empty email inbox is a wonderful feeling, and not one I was familiar with for a very long time. You know those people who have 2,472 notifications on their email client on their phone? I was that person once upon a time.

I cringe when I think of the things I missed because I read an email, thought "I'll deal with this later" and then lost it in the avalanche of new messages that piled on top. Things like early registrations, gift cards, networking opportunities, and even events that I paid for but didn't remember I had tickets to.

Over the years working in face-paced environments, combined with having to keep on top of a slew of medical information, I have found a system to tackle the digital abyss that is my email inbox so that at least once a week I can sip my coffee and stare at my empty inbox in bliss. All it takes is a task management tool that works for you (Trello has a great free option), a calendar app of your choice, and about 30 minutes of your time once you get the routine down.

It can be done

Prep Work:

For work, I like to do this as the very last thing on Friday before I clock out. For my personal stuff, I like to hit it Sunday morning before groceries and meal prepping for the week. Find the time that makes the most sense for you to clean the slate.

Open up your preferred calendar and note-taking/task management app. At work, we use Asana for task management; for personal life, I use Trello. I also will open up OneNote / Google Keep and my master iCal to help better plan out my due dates.

Grab a beverage and a piece of candy from your COVID-Free stash. This is the home stretch of your week; make it a little more enjoyable.

The Path to Inbox Zero:

First Pass: Delete Delete Delete.

If it does not interest you and you do not need it, deleted it. If you have even the slightest suspicion you may want or need to open it and read it, don't delete it.

EXCEPTION: Once you get the habit established, or if you have some time to kill, you might want to go through and unsubscribe from some of the newsletters you keep deleting. I did use Unroll.Me for a while and I did like it at first but then it started rolling up things I actually wanted to keep and would let things through that I thought I had added to the list.

Second Pass: Archive reference materials.

My general rule of thumb is, if it references a project I worked on, a conversation I might need to reference, anything with money or schedules, or anything that I think that I might be asked later, I archive it.

Third Pass: Make a plan to deal with the rest.

IMPORTANT: If you can do it in 2 minutes or less, do it now. Just, fire off those replies, add those dates to your calendar, and archive the convos. Then it's done and you'll feel better.

For things that might take a little longer or involve additional pieces, we turn to our task management system and calendar. If you can integrate your preferred tasking program with your email, DO IT. (It probably will take less than 2 minutes to do too). That way, it just takes a few quick clicks to copy emails over to the task without cutting and pasting.

Uh... Kiwi, you might be asking, isn't this whole process just the equivalent of moving the pile of papers from one counter to another?

This is the face I picture you having when you say that.

No. What you are doing is taking a parcel of information and moving it from a passive state to an active state. Instead of the paper just sitting on the counter, you're deciding which can be throw out, which need to be filed, and what (and when) you can finish them. By creating an actionable item with a set time and direction, we're taking that info out of the box and putting it to use.

Essentially, we're going to create a simple to-do list for next week. Humans LOVE to-do lists; it is psychologically satisfying to check a box and cross a line out. In addition to that, we're going to carve out the time to tackle those to-dos.

Setting Up Your Email Tasks:

When you are creating your task, make the title a clear direction of what you need to do... ie "Follow Up with Bill about Client Meeting". Set a due date for when you can actually do it - it might not be Monday. I will usually jot a few notes in the description of what I need to do. Make sure the email and attachments are included in the comments, and then I go in and do the BOLD ITALIC UNDERLINE trifecta over any important details I need.

Once your task is created (and saved!), pull up your calendar, and basically create a meeting with yourself to get it done on the due date. Put the Task Item link in the invite as well.

Why add it to the calendar? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, this ensures that you have it in your daily schedule, even if it's just a 15-minute block. Secondly, it helps you track how you're spending your time during your work-day. Ideally, you should only need to have 2 or 3 items to truly block in during the week, save for a bunch of follow up email replies. If you're finding you have a lot of loose ends every Friday week after week, it offers an opportunity to do an evaluation of your workflow, project load, or personal organization.

Once you have the email contents sorted as a task & event... archive or delete it.

Sometimes it helps to narrate as though you're a late-night host

What about newsletters or "non-task" emails? For emails that are part of a larger ongoing project, I will create a "reference task" for that project and add all the relevant pieces to it. I don't always assign a due date on these, but I will still block off time in my calendar to add it to the appropriate project board.

For things like items in newsletters that I want to read, a prompt I want to work on, or links I want to read there are two options.

  • Create a task or Calendar event and set a time to do it with the steps above. This works well for me for reading materials... I have a weekly event on Wednesdays where I read the links I collected over the past week

  • Use a note-taking app. I typically do this more for my personal email; I have a "Bored" file that I fill with the challenges from newsletters or "10 things you should clean this weekend" type things. It's also not a bad way to save content ideas.

Last Pass: Empty the bins.

Delete your drafts. Can the spam. Take out the trash.

Congratulations. You've reached Inbox Zero. Now you can go start your weekend.

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