Anyone that uses David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), will know the importance of getting your Inbox to Zero. It is not only one of the corner stones of the system, it is one of the most cathartic processes in setting the system up. However, even if you haven’t heard of GTD, you will know the feeling of being out of control that can go along with seeing hundreds of e-mails in your inbox. This post is about how to set up your email system so that you can get your Inbox to Zero, feel more in control, and never lose another email you’ve yet to reply to or action.

First off, what is the problem? Let me explain by giving you an example of something that happened to me a while back. I was sending out some EMails to contacts on my mailing list. Shortly after sending them out, and getting the normal ‘read receipts’ and ‘Out of Office’ replies, I got a ‘read receipt’ from someone for an e-mail that I had sent almost a year ago. This prompted me to do some digging. The more I spoke to people the more I realised that there are a great many people who have an inbox which has everything in it, including: unread items, items they plan to read/action/delete, items they just don’t want to lose. This has many effects on you. The most impactful one is the, often unperceived, stress that goes along with your internal dialogue telling you “I must remember to reply to that” or “I need to find that email from…”.

The solution is not only simple to set up, it is easy to use and stick to once you do it: and that is coming from a serial procrastinator.

All you need to do is set up some other ‘folders’ beneath your inbox. I did this based on an audit of the only things I ever do with an email. Therefore I have Action, Someday, Read and Waiting. I don’t store emails for reference as I use a Contacct Management System (Act) for business emails, and Evernote for personal ones. However, if you wanted to, there is no reason not to create a hierarchy of folders within your email system.

Using the set up is even easier, but requires an initial investement in time (to get your inbox to zero), and regularly following simple steps to ‘process’ your inbox. When you have your folders set up (how you do this will depend on which E-Mail client you use, but for most there will be a ‘create folder’ button), the processing method is simple.

  1. Start at the top and work your way down. Make a decision about each email in turn to decide if there is anything to be done. If not, you will either be storing it as reference, putting it in ‘someday’ or deleting it. Be ruthless in this.
  2. If it has an action, you need to decide firstly if it can be done in 2 minutes. If it can, then do it now, then file the email based on the previous step. If it will take more than 2 minutes either put it in ‘action’ (do this as part of my todo list), ‘waiting’ (I’m wating for someone or something to get back to me), or ‘read later’ (I just want to find the time to read this in more detail).

Once you have gone through your whole Inbox (realsitically this could take more than one session if your inbox has gotten out of control), you can follow this process everyday and have an inbox which is what it should be: a collection point for new things to come in to be processed.

All you need to do then is work through your actionable E-Mails as part of your normal way of working, and make sure you review the system regularly (GTD recommends that you do this weekly). The working and reviewing of the process will be covered in more detail in following blog posts. Use one of the subscription options to find out when a new article has been posted.

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