POSTED ON August 10 2015

5 Steps to Reaching Inbox Zero: If I Can Do It, You Can Too

“I’d like to dial it back 5% or 10% and try to have a vacation that’s not just email with a view.”         –Elon Musk

 

I have an admission to make.

There was a point in my life – only 8 months ago – where I avoided my inbox at all costs. Due to the wreckage known as my email backlog, I dreaded opening my Gmail so much that I only checked my email on my iPhone where I was safely limited to 50 messages at a time.

At that time I had 50 pages of unanswered emails, and at 50 emails a page in Gmail, that left me with a whopping 2,500 unanswered emails. I’m not a lazy person. I enjoy connecting with people. Why, I asked myself, was I so far behind on email? And why could I never quite get a handle on it?

It all started back when I moved from Montana to California to embark on a new adventure in a new place with new people. I had email forwards of contact information I didn’t want to lose, goodbye messages, welcome messages, and of course, emails from all of you who read I Want Her Job.

Over the course of the year my email inbox started to grow out of control. My days were spent at work managing my office and client email and in the evening the last thing I wanted to do was open my laptop and send more emails. Instead, my time was devoted to growing IWHJ, redesigning the site and, when I had to, only answering those emails I marked as mission critical.

Three years later I moved to Arizona, and the problem only grew worse. This is when that 50-page pileup of emails reached a pinnacle. Every time I opened my inbox I felt sick to my stomach.

Then, one weekend I cleaned a closet filled with junk. We all have the closet … even Monica on Friends had the closet … the one filled with sentimental junk. But after a weekend-long cleaning binge, my feeling went from dread to one of organizational bliss. Now when I open that closet I actually feel inspired, and everything in there has a home, which makes preventing a future pileup more convenient.

Why not apply this same cleaning experience to my inbox, I thought? So, over Thanksgiving break I began the cleanse. And like any cleanse it was uncomfortable and it took work, but I did it. Now, over half a year later, my inbox only has 12 unanswered emails. How did I go from 2,500 to 12 without hitting “delete all”?

1/ Oh, Hello OHIO

Have you heard of the OHIO plan of attack before? For those of you who love acronyms, it’s a pretty easy one to remember. OHIO = Only Handle It Once. This process can be applied to your inbox routine easily. When you open an email, take an immediate action with it. Either complete the task in the email, send it to someone else who can help you achieve the task in the email, delete it or schedule a time to come back to it later. Then, done! The unread email is handled. Make sure you take this same approach with your phone, too, where it’s even easier to ask Siri to, for example, make a reminder for you to follow up with your friend on her due date.

2/ It Takes Two, Baby

When my fiancé told me his no-fail trick to inbox domination, I laughed. Seriously. It seemed so unrealistic that his system could work … until I actually tried it. Here’s his secret: Create a two-folder email system. What? No folder for each client or folder for each project? Really. He found that he used to take more time in his inbox filing emails than he actually did responding to them. As a former ad agency girl I could relate. I wanted to be able to find any email within a nanosecond of the client asking. This was scary for me, but I gave it a try. I had one folder, which was my inbox, and my second folder was “Received”. Either an email was waiting to be answered, or it was filed away as answered. What did I find? With fantastic email search functions today, it took me just as long to type in the email I was looking for as it would to look through my folders. Sometimes it was faster. Take this plunge and it will change your organizational life.

3/ Let’s Talk About …

Subject lines. You know how you think about buying a particular make of car, and then suddenly you notice that car everywhere? Take a look at your email subject lines (both those you send and receive). Those people who know how to get things done usually use very effective email lines that give a call to action, followed by a category. For example, one of my email subject lines to an IWHJ editor might be: Follow-Up Needed :: Leading Lady Profile or Availability Needed :: Scheduling Partner Call. When your subject lines clearly tell your recipient what you’re asking for, you’re more likely to get a quick, accurate response.

4/ Check, Please!

We all have bursting calendars. And if you’re like me, sometimes you feel so overwhelmed when you start your workday that you have no idea where to begin. It’s easy to lose time clicking through sale emails, reading Facebook updates, etc. So, just like anything else you’d schedule, schedule email check-ins. And hold yourself to these times. Yes, there might be a few people with ants in their pants who expect you to respond to an email within 5 minutes, but this is your chance to train them. I haven’t yet missed an important email using this method. If an email can wait 5 minutes, chances are it also can wait 2 hours to be answered.

5/ Happy Hour Redux

If you check my calendar, you’ll see that every Friday from 9 to 10 a.m. I have a “NW Hour” meeting … with myself. “NW Hour” stands for networking hour. It’s just an hour of time I set aside each week to reach out to those people I want to connect with. It’s my chance to be proactive in my relationships. This time is spent emailing someone I want to say hello to, handwriting thank you notes or talking to an old colleague or boss. My network is my safety net, and it’s not to be forgotten. Apply this method and you’ll find joy when you open your inbox only to find a reply from someone you want to hear from. Consider this your email “me” time.