Remember when email was supposed to make office workers' lives easier? Yeah, that turned out well.
In my business efficiency consulting work, the top complaint I hear is that everyone is spending too much time on email. And they're right--studies have shown that the average officer worker spends 2.5 hours a day reading and responding to an average of 200 emails, of which 144 aren't relevant to their job.
That's why email is one of the first things I recommend optimizing in any company I work with.
There are many ways to manage your email inbox, but the method I'm going to outline here is unique in that it allows you to lower the amount of time you spend checking email while also ensuring nothing gets lost or falls through the cracks. I've been personally using this method for years and I've implemented it with hundreds of teams in my business efficiency consulting, many of whom have told me it more than halved the amount of time they spend on email, saving three to five hours per week per team member.
Here's how--and why--it works.
What Is Inbox Zero?
The email management system I recommend is called Inbox Zero, and it revolves around clearing emails out of your inbox with the eventual goal of having zero emails visible. And when I say "zero emails visible" I mean it--this is not "unread zero," and that's an important distinction.
The typical goal with email is to reach "unread zero," but there are a few problems with this mindset. Emails marked as read still appear in your inbox, and whether you realize it or not, you're wasting valuable brainpower scanning through those emails every time you open your inbox. It also makes it hard to differentiate between emails that have actually been dealt with and those that were simply "read." And that is how things fall through the cracks.
Inbox Zero allows you to quickly and efficiently deal with every email that comes into your inbox. Once it's been dealt with, it's out of sight and out of mind--meaning you can get back to work on the stuff that matters without having email in the back of your mind.
Learn to Archive
If you're like most people, your inbox consists of thousands of emails, the vast majority of which have already been read or dealt with and are no longer relevant. The first step in getting to Inbox Zero is to take care of those irrelevant emails.
I recommend first archiving all emails older than 30 days. To do this in Gmail, simply search "older_than:30d," select all, and hit archive (in Outlook, you can use the formula "received:<mm/dd/year"). Don't worry, these emails will not be deleted--you can still access them in your archive.
Now we need to deal with the remaining emails.
The R.A.D. System
When an email comes into your inbox, there are three actions you can take: You can reply to it, archive it, or defer it. I like to refer to these actions as the R.A.D. system.
If you're following along and you've just archived all of your emails older than 30 days, you probably have a few hundred sitting in your inbox that are under 30 days old. Start by working through these using R.A.D.
If the email warrants a response, reply to it and then archive the email. Your job is done here, so there's no need to keep that email around, and if anyone responds, it will reappear in your inbox.
If the email doesn't warrant a response or is unnecessary, archive it. You can always refer back to it later with the search function.
If the email isn't relevant right now but you will need to refer to it at a later date, you'll want to defer it to a later date when it will be relevant. In Gmail you can do this by "snoozing" the email and in Outlook you can use the Boomerang plugin. (Say you have a meeting next week and someone sends you directions to the office. Snooze the email until the day of the meeting and it will appear in your inbox that morning.)
Achieving and Maintaining Inbox Zero
Using the R.A.D. system will allow you to efficiently work through all of the emails in your inbox. After you initially get to Inbox Zero and see your empty inbox for the first time, you'll want to use the same method every time you check your email.
And while the ultimate goal is to reach Inbox Zero every time you check your email, it's by no means a hard-and-fast rule. Realistically, an inbox should have less than 20 emails in it at one time--with the goal of working through them by the end of the day.
However you use this method, the objective is always the same--make your email work for you, not against you.