Operation zero: how to achieve an empty inbox every day

I’m continually fascinated by how people deal with to-do lists, projects, contacts, and emails. All of these things relate to the broader issues around time management and productivity. If you can ‘take control’ of time management, I believe this is a key ingredient for success. My friend and colleague Dezene recently published a terrific blog post about email management. His ideas are great, and he’s found a wonderful system. His post was partially initiated by a conversation on twitter about how (overworked) scientists manage their emails. This is a very significant problem, and one that’s quite universal. One problem that I share with all my colleagues is the feeling of being inundated by email (I easily get over 100 emails each day). It’s a real challenge to deal with emails, and takes a lot of time and mental energy.

I wanted to offer you a peek into my email management system – not because I don’t like Dezene’s (I do!) but rather to offer an alternative. It’s a method that’s quick, and offers you an opportunity to achieve the joy of having a ‘zero-inbox’ EVERY day! It’s also pretty simple:

1) Simplify: I only use two addresses: my work email, and a gmail account. The latter is for family / social (‘non-work’) things, and it’s the email address I give out to my kids schools, or when I register for on-line accounts. I NEVER delete any of those emails, and just let all of that reside away on google’s servers. The gmail search function is so amazing that it’s always possible to find an old message.

2) Consolidate: I only manage email on my one, main computer using one program (Mac Mail) and when I read mail on other devices (mobile device, webmail), I never manage messages or tasks. This is so the system is consolidated. With my main Mac Mail, I have the gmail and my work accounts set up (but separated, so I don’t confuse work and family business).

3) Minimal rules: I set up a few rules, but not too many, since the system I will outline reduces the need for too many rules. I do set up rules for all my ‘calendar invites’ I receive over email, so that I can deal with scheduling things on my own time – that means all invites go to a separate folder. I also set up rules for my editorial work, so that all emails related to editing end up in one folder on my computer.

4) Moving messages: In addition to folders associated with rules, I use only two (or so) other main folders: one is called ‘IMPORTANT‘ (yes, in all caps!) –> into this goes stuff that’s really REALLY important. The sorts of emails that need to be found quickly.  There only about 20 emails in that folder, related to flight confirmations, or exam scheduling, or other emails whose content is important to access regularly and quickly. The other folder is called “short-term archive”. At the end of every day, any emails that are in the ‘inbox’ get dropped into the short-term archive.  After a month or two, all of those emails get moved into a ‘long-term archive’ (which is on my computer), and after about a year or two, those all go into a long-term ‘deep’ archive (e.g., external drive). I will occasionally set up another folder for a specific project (e.g., research project, or grant proposal).

This system means I NEVER have to delete any emails (megabytes are cheap – why bother deleting anything? … and it takes time to delete stuff), and I always achieve ‘zero inbox’ at the end of each day. That is a very nice feeling!

Operation zero, daily.

Operation zero, daily.

5) Flags: If I can’t deal with an email quickly, or during the course of the work-day, but it still requires some kind of action, I simply flag that email, and then after all emails are sent to the short-term archive, I simply look in the ‘flagged email’ folder (which is a feature of Mac Mail) and all those emails are in one place. This is sort of like a to-do list, although I prefer to think of those emails simply as needing some kind of attention, sometime. That attention can be because they are part of a conversation with important contacts or content, or perhaps are waiting for some follow-up, or or perhaps a review request, etc.  I have come to realize that there are always between about 70 and 100 ‘flagged’ emails. Every now and then I go back and double check how many of those flags can be removed and thus there is turnover in those ‘action item’ emails.

6) Search: Finally, I depend very heavily on the search function to retrieve old emails.  Because nothing is ever deleted, I can almost always find it again. If I can’t, you can bet someone else has that email in one of their folders.

In sum, hopefully some of you might find this system to be worth trying. In my time using it, I’ve never lost an email, and I’ve been fooled into thinking I’ve dealt with all my emails each day.

Now.. what isn’t included, above, is the dreaded ‘to do’ list. For this, I generally depend on a rather inefficient combination of scratching things down on sheets of paper. Recent conversations are causing me to re-think this approach. I do think I need to write things on paper in order to keep the tasks on my mind. I also block of time in my calendar to specifically tackle big jobs. It’s the only way I’ll protect the time and get productive work done – that is only moderately successful. So, my next task is to rethink how I manage my tasks…


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