How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero: 7 Powerful Practices

Email overload afflicts us all.

A joint study by Microsoft and the University of Illinois found that it takes, on average, 16 minutes, 33 seconds for a worker interrupted by an email to get back to what he or she was doing.

Multiply that 16 minutes and 33 seconds by the scores of email we receive every day, and we have a problem. A serious problem.

Here’s how to take control by getting your email inbox to zero:

Practice 1: Have one central inbox

Make sure all your email is delivered to one central inbox. All of it.

Don’t have a half a dozen different email accounts that you check separately. If you must, for company policy reasons, separate personal email from professional, it’s okay to have two inboxes. But that’s it. No more.

Practice 2: Turn off automatic delivery and notifications

Now turn off automatic delivery of email to your inbox immediately. Or, if you receive email through an IMAP system, close your email program and open that program only when you need it.

I’m writing this blog post on my laptop and email keeps coming into my inbox and creating pop-up alerts on my screen. I absentmindedly left the program open and find myself every few paragraphs or so reading new email instead of writing this blog post (Consider the irony).

It’s impossible to get anything of significance done when you are constantly interrupted. Turn all this stuff off.

Practice 3: Set specific times in the day to check your email

Set 2-3 specific times in the day when you’ll check your email and stick to those times religiously. Resist the urge to cheat in-between times. This will be difficult at first. Your addiction to email will surprise you, but after a few days (weeks?), you’ll feel like a different person.

Surprisingly, this practice will actually increase your email effectiveness. Instead of giving half your brain to incoming email, during these set times you’ll be able to give your undivided attention to it, and, as a result, execute better on the things being asked of you.

Practice 4: Do it or defer it

During the specific times of your day when you check your email, use the letters D, D, D, and F to guide you. No, that’s not your son’s latest report card (Okay, maybe it is). It’s a filter for managing your email.

When you read a specific piece of email and can take action on it in two minutes or less, do it. That’s the first D.

If you can’t take action on it in two minutes or less, assign it to a future day. That is, defer it, the second D. You can revisit this task later and decide whether or not it’s really something you need to do, but for now it’s out of your inbox.

Under no circumstances allow your email inbox to become an additional task list. It’s merely a temporary staging area for incoming messages. That’s all.

Click and drag software exists to quickly turn an email into a task with the subject line becoming the title of the task and any attached documents being placed in the Notes section.

This makes sifting through your email quick and easy. Follow the two minute rule and keep your email check-ins limited to 10-15 minutes or less.

Practice 5: Delete it or file it

If an email is not actionable, that is, if it’s something you need to know and not do. Read it and delete it, the third D. Also, immediately delete anything that’s irrelevant to achieving your highest priorities and pre-delete unwanted email by unsubscribing to unnecessary newsletters and using your spam filters to the greatest degree.

If you must save certain email to refer to it later, create folders to put them in that are outside your inbox. That is, file it: F. Keep these folders, however, to an absolute minimum. I send email like this to Evernote where I keep track of these kind of details.

MORE: 13 Ways I Use Evernote for Business (Mostly)

Practice 6: Get to zero every day

Now use the D, D, D, F system to get your inbox to zero at the end of every day and absolute zero at the end of every week. Achieving this goal will be one of the most liberating things you can do for both your business and your life.

Practice 7: Set a get to zero appointment with yourself

I’ve worked with executives whose inboxes were filled with thousands of email, and it destroyed their ability to execute crisply as important details fell through the cracks.

If this is you, schedule an undisturbed block of 2-3 hours as soon as possible to sift through all your email using the D, D, D, F designations and get your email inbox to zero. Now stay on top of your email every day.

If your email inbox gets cluttered again, schedule another appointment with yourself to get back to zero.

I have seven messages currently in my inbox, and that number will be zero by the end of the business day. I can’t tell you how freeing it is not to have the mountain of email screaming at me.

The same could be true for you. Get started today!

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