Email is one of those things you can't help but love to hate. While it's a great communication tool, it's also nasty like dirty laundry, growing back and smothering you with dark, overwhelming feelings of déjà vu. But don't be fooled. Inbox zero isn't something you need to achieve.
The real problem is in our perception of "done". For whatever reason, we associate the empty inbox with having taken care of current issues and, therefore, effective leadership. So if there's even one little digital message in our email, we feel like we have to attack it. If we don't, we feel like we're missing something, that we're somehow at risk. And that's before you add in the fear of getting overwhelmed--we rush to respond because we're afraid that we won't catch up later.
But here's the reality. Much of what comes into the inbox doesn't need you. Don't let your ego trick you into thinking otherwise. A whopping two thirds (66 percent) of the email that comes in is spam. A lot of the rest is non-urgent material, such as simple acknowledgments of receipts or even blank emails sent just for the attachment you'll need later.
So ideally, assuming you're not able to hand 100 percent of your email off to someone else, here's what you do. At the beginning of your workday, instead of starting at the top of your inbox and working your way down each message, scan through your inbox for urgent-looking subject lines that match your objectives, or do a filtered search by keyword or sender if you're expecting something critical. Move those emails to a folder labeled "Mail That Matters" or something similar, or flag them. Mass select everything that's left and move it to a folder called "Non-Urgent Unread". Now go back to "Mail That Matters". Visually, now you see only what's truly important.
This simple technique helps you visually distinguish between what likely doesn't deserve your attention and the small percentage of messages that probably do. It puts your attention back on the message content, rather than on message quantity, so it's easier not to get distracted from the goals of your business and waste time. The reduction in stress you get from seeing fewer communications then can help you concentrate well and make better decisions. You can always go to the "Non-Urgent Unread" folder when you get a few extra moments, and since most people expect you to reply to an email within 24-48 hours, a good rule of thumb is that you probably can delete what's left in the "Non-Urgent Unread" at the end of each week. Trust that people will send a new message or phone you if you make a mistake and a critical email gets misfiled. They're generally in the same email boat and understand it's tough to catch it all.
This divide-and-conquer trick also doesn't mean you can't use all the other email strategies out there. Barbara Corcoran's method of setting a blunt-but-polite autoreply saying she's personally not going to reply, for example, is a great way to reduce unnecessary communication, delegate and encourage non-email follow-ups on high-priority material. Go ahead and keep using filters and clear email policies. The idea is just get to the point where, as those strategies help you out, you can look at your inbox based on your goals and objectives and not worry about the rest, and to eliminate the psychological freak-out that seeing too many messages initiates. Judge your success by whether you're communicating on issues that relate to the company vision, because that's where real leaders allocate their time.