Why I don’t strive for Inbox Zero: super simple email organization

In any given work day, I receive 100-200 emails. Definitely not Inbox Zero. Some of you may be thinking that’s an insanely low number and some of you are probably overwhelmed by how high that number is.

During a busy workday, it’s not uncommon to have 20-30 emails come in while I’m in a single meeting.

This means that a clear email management process is critical.

If Inbox Zero isn’t the goal, what is?

Many people strive for Inbox Zero, which I found frustratingly elusive and quickly decided was not my goal. I think I’ve actually achieved Inbox Zero in a professional email inbox approximately twice in my entire career.

I only keep emails in my inbox that I need to take action on. My goal is to keep this under 10-15 emails, and I get very twitchy if it gets more than 50-60.

My goal is to end the day with fewer than 5 items that need action in my inbox, but it’s currently more common that I’m hovering in the 15-25 item range. A few years ago this would have appalled me, but in my current season it feels doable.

How to effectively organize your email without hitting Inbox Zero | strategysarah.com

How To Organize Email

My corporate email account only has three folders:

  • Followup
  • Archive
  • Reference (and these should technically all live in Evernote, not in my email!)

Inbox

As I mentioned, this only contains emails that I need to take action on. This includes unread emails (because at a minimum, I either need to read and delete them or just delete them) and any email that requires any type of action on my part.

For my corporate email, I also keep all emails directed to my inbox and scan/read and file accordingly. I have found that automatically filtering email tends to lead to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, and these emails get ignored. If you’re considering automatically filing an email, ask yourself if you really need to be receiving it in the first place.

Archive

The general archive doesn’t need a folder in Gmail, as it’s a built-in archive function that’s immediately searchable. In Outlooks, this is a manually created folder that emails get saved to (with the lovely drag-and-drop functionality).

Reference

Just what it says it is, reference documents. (Although, if I were following my own process, there shouldn’t be any reference documents living in email, as they should all be saved in either Evernote or Dropbox. I’m still a work in progress).

That’s great, you say. But how do I get my insane volume of emails processed and filed appropriately? I’m so glad you asked.

Email Management (including Triage)

The current volume of my incoming means that at the end of the day, I can still have 60-80 emails that need action on my part, even if that action is only filing. I try to take 15-30 minutes at the end (or beginning) of each day to review emails, take action on those that only need quick action and block time for those that need a longer response. This allows me to better focus on the task at hand knowing that a) there isn’t anything that needs my attention this.very.second and b) that I have time planned to appropriately respond to the messages that are there.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done method encourages responding immediately to any message that will take two minutes or less to answer, which is a great goal, but sometimes I have 50 messages and 5 minutes to review all so it’s not realistic to answer even the short emails in that time frame. Email triage is a great thing, even though you definitely need the longer follow up sessions.

Confession: I do have a love/hate relationship with email on my phone. Smartphone email makes it super easy to do the scan version of email triage, but it also makes it deceptive just how many messages you have when you see the 10 unread messages on your phone and then get to your desk and realize there are 85 messages in your inbox, you’ve just technically “read” most of them when you were scanning for urgent needs. I still think the benefits outweigh the negatives – as long as you follow up on your primary computer.

With that, I need to go finish digging out of today’s inbox…what email management strategies work well for you?

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1 thought on “Why I don’t strive for Inbox Zero: super simple email organization”

  1. Sarah,

    This is a great post and relates to what so many of us struggle with when it comes to email. I actually just wrote a post on my blog about email triage.

    Your approach is very practical and easy to implement. Keep coming up with awesome content. You’re doing great work.

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