You guys, my email box is empty! It kind of freaks me out. I haven’t seen the bottom of that poor thing since 2004. Did you even know that an empty mobile Gmail inbox has a little sunshine smiley face that says “You’re all done! Please enjoy your day?”
It totally does, and I’m going to show you how to see it.
I know that the idea of a person being right-brained or left-brained is largely a social construct, rather than a scientific one. I’m okay with that. I have the personality traits (disorganization, creativity, trouble with complicated systems) that are culturally referred to as right-brained. It’s kind of crazy to think about often I’ve felt productive because I’m checking that inbox, when in reality I’m not really doing anything about what I find there. Please tell me I’m not the only one.
Recently I came across this video by Merlin Mann (who came up with the whole Hipster PDA idea that I use for my out-of-the-house brain dump.) It’s kind of long, but if you’re interested in taming your email beast, it’s worth the hour to watch it. I decided to get my email under control once and for all, so I adapted Mann’s Inbox Zero system to work for me. I kicked my inbox’s butt, and so can you. Even if you’re not the organized type.
9 Steps to Kicking Email Inbox Butt
1. Make an archive file with today’s date on it and put every email in your inbox into that. Start with a completely empty inbox.
2. Only check your email when you have time to actually deal with what you find there. I rarely need more than five minutes to cope with every email in my inbox.
3. Work in layers.
4. First delete or archive everything that can be deleted or archived.
5. Next forward anything that needs forwarding.
6. Finally act on everything else.
7. Have your calendar handy when you check your email so you can add dates, deadlines, or appointments to it.
8. Print out any coupons or emails with information you need to keep handy.
9. Completely empty your email inbox at least once a day.
Okay, I know that nine sounds like a lot. But, I promise, in ten minutes you’re going to thank me. It’s such a load off not to have all of those emails, most of which are the virtual equivalent of grocery ads and an insurance letter for the guy who used to live at your address and the guy spinning the pizza sign on the corner. You’ll see. Nine steps later, and suddenly your email makes sense.
Let’s go over some of the steps a little more in depth.
Start with Zero
I’ve had my Gmail account for a decade. (Remember when you used to have to try to wrangle an invitation to open one?) The idea of actually going through all 7000 messages that have built up in my inbox in all that time made me a little nauseous. My solution was to start with an artificially empty inbox. I followed step one above, and now I have a very big, lumpy, disorganized archive file that looks exactly like my inbox used to look. My plan is to go through it a little bit at a time until it’s empty. I may or may not ever get around to that. In the meantime, I can search it if I need to and it’s out of my face.
Work in Layers
I love this part of Mann’s Inbox Zero plan. My brain likes doing the easy stuff first! So, I delete any obvious junk mail. Easy. Some emails are obviously going to be archived as well (receipts for online purchases or bill pays, automated responses that I want to keep record of), so those are next. If there’s something that needs to be forwarded on to someone else, that happens third. Finally, I’m left with a neat little stack of email that requires me to actually do something.
Here’s a list of emails that I received in the last day or two and how I acted on them.
Dozens of emails in my promotional and social boxes
I just glance at these and delete any I don’t need to open. I’d say that’s at least 80 percent. If I get a coupon I want to use I either write the code in my brain dump or print the coupon and then delete the email. If someone sends me a message on social media, I just delete those emails, too. If it’s something that can’t wait until the next time I’m on Facebook or Twitter, it becomes an actionable email. If I have the slightest worry that I might want to look for an email later, I archive it instead of deleting it.
The receipt from an Amazon purchase
This was archived without even the need to open it.
A list of contest winners from my Rebel Nation blog tour host
This needed to be forwarded to my publicist so that she could mail the books out.
An invitation from a local indie bookstore to participate in their booth at Reno’s Women’s Expo
I definitely want to do this. I answered the email, then printed it out (because it had the dates and times of the expo.) I put the printout in my binder at the back of the calendar section, because the expo isn’t until spring. I archived the email after I printed it. (Don’t worry, we’re going to talk about our binders this weekend!)
A coupon code from Walgreens for a free 8X10 print of a photograph
I think this would make a good Christmas gift for my parents-in-law. It took me less than 60 seconds to follow the link in the email to my photo-printing page at Walgreens.com, choose a photograph and order it. So I took action on this one, then deleted the email.
An email from my agent telling me that an anthology I was invited to participate in sounds like a good idea
This email triggered the need to write an email to the anthology publisher. I emailed my agent a quick thank you, then archived this email. I pulled up the anthology email from my archive and let the publisher know I’d love to send them a story. Then I wrote the deadline for submission into my monthly calendar.
Archive is Your Friend
Actually, archive is your army of file clerks. You don’t need a complicated, multi-layer system for organizing the emails you don’t want to delete. Just one with today’s date on it to hold the jumble that is your current inbox, and the regular archive that your email system has set up for you. Just archive everything that needs to be kept, after your email box is at zero. It’s searchable, so setting up files for different things is not only repetitive, it can make things more complicated because you might forget which folder you put an email in.
I archive anything that there’s any chance I might need to see again. I only delete true junk mail.
Added Bonuses (Bonusi?)
Here’s something I didn’t expect. Since I’m using my email much more efficiently, and actually taking action on things instead of letting them pile up, I’ve actually saved money. Kind of a lot of it. Just in the last two weeks, I’ve printed out coupons that saved me $10 on an ink cartridge from Staples and at least $5 on groceries, plus I got a free 8X10 print at Walgreens, which normally costs $3.99. Score! Those would have languished before, I’m positive of it. I would have left them in my inbox thinking I’d use them if it came up, but then never think of them again. Since I knew I’d use them, I went ahead and printed them out–and guess what? I used them.
I also haven’t embarrassed myself by forgetting to get back to someone because their email got lost in my massively disorganized inbox. That’s worth more than any coupon.
Last, I’m way more productive. Since my email box is totally empty, I’m not distracted by it when I really should be doing something else. Even if I do check, because I’ve had ten whole years to train myself to respond like Pavlov’s dogs when I hear the little bing bong that tells me to, it takes me like five seconds. Because I only have one email. ONE. EMAIL. Can you even imagine?
Your Home is Your Business
When I watched Merlin Mann’s video about Inbox Zero, my first thought was that since I’m not a Google employee (the group he was talking to) and I just have a regular old personal email address, this was way more than I needed. Sure, I get a lot of emails, but nothing that needs a fancy system for managing it. And then I realized that even without my work-from-home gigs, just running my home is a business. I’m the CEO of my family, by virtue of being the adult that’s home the most. Having a simple, intuitive, system for managing emails is just as important for me as it is for someone who clocks in at a desk from 9 to 5 every day.
Since I also work from home, that management system is even more important for me.
I take my email more seriously now. It turns out that I get less than I thought I did, since most of what lands in my inbox gets deleted without me even opening it. The important stuff isn’t competing with the junk anymore. More importantly, I’ve gotten rid of the idea that I’d done something just by reading an email. Since I’m not faced with an inbox full of 7000 messages, it’s easy for me to take action on emails as they come in.
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