I routinely hear other professionals complain about having a ton of unread emails sitting in their inbox. Every day I see tweets and facebook status updates bragging about finally having zero unread emails. This is not a major accomplishment, and certainly isn’t cause for celebration. Excluding vacations and unexpected events, if you typically have more than 5 unread emails in your inbox, you’re doing something wrong.
I’m a busy web professional. I live my life online. My daily email count -real emails that require a reply; not counting spam here- hovers around 40. Most of these emails consist of communication with clients regarding their websites, but also include personal emails and communication with service providers. In the past year I’ve never had more than 10 unread emails in my inbox at a time, and I make sure there are zero unread emails when I quit for the day. After asking a few friends, and doing some research, below are the five most common reasons for having a bloated inbox… and some suggestions to get you to - and keep you at - inbox zero.
Problem 1: You’re lazy / unproductive
There’s no getting around this one. You have to be brutally honest with yourself here. When I say lazy, I’m not talking about sitting on the couch all day playing video games and eating cheetos (although if that’s the case, then yeah, stop it). I’m talking about hidden productivity killers like watching YouTube, reading too much twitter / facebook, and too many personal phone calls. I call them red balls (more on that in a future post).
Solution: The first step in getting to inbox zero is being aware of how you spend your time. If being unproductive is your issue, work on improving that first. Try to determine the source of your unproductive nature. If you hate what you do, find a way out. If you’re bored, seek greater challenges. If you are an alcoholic, drug addict, or have some other dependency that is holding you back, get help.
Problem 2: Too many distractions
You’re busy, no doubt. We all are. Throughout the day you have phone calls and server hiccups and office birthday parties all keeping you from replying to those pesky unread emails. This is unavoidable, but fortunately, there is a way to combat it.
Solution: lock yourself away. Find a quiet place and shut yourself out for an hour to focus on replying to all of the unread emails in your inbox. Not only will you be able to breeze through the messages, your replies will be more thoughtful and complete.
Problem 3: Poor business model
If you are great at managing distractions, and you’re a productive person, but you still cannot manage to reach inbox zero, then the problem is not you - it’s likely either your business model or you simply have too much work. This applies mainly to people who should be producing work rather than communicating with others.
Solution: if you are a freelancer, hire someone to manage your projects. If you enjoy the client interaction and doing the actual work, then start charging more - this way you can take on less work, but become more intimately involved.
Problem 4: Open issue / it’s not time for a reply
Not every email that pops into your inbox is ready for a reply. Some are questions that you will need to wait to find the answer to. Others might require a lot of thought and editing that you just don’t have time for at the moment. You leave the message unread, thinking that you will get to it later. This is bad for two reasons: 1) it leaves the other person hanging. They are unaware of your intentions. Your lack of a reply can be misconstrued as disinterest or contempt. 2) It might end up getting buried and never receive a reply.
Solution: Always reply immediately (or in a reasonable amount of time) to every email you receive which requires your attention. Even if all you say is that you need more time to think about the issue and will respond within a day or two. Then, create a task for yourself in a todo list, project management app, or CRM with a reminder to follow up (I recommend BaseCamp and HighRise). If the reminder pops up a day later and you still aren’t ready to compose your reply, extend the reminder, but be sure to send a quick message to the person awaiting your reply.
Problem 5: Emailing is your job
If you’re in a management position or other job centered around communicating with employees and external contractors, customers, and suppliers, then answering emails is a large part of your job. In this case, don’t expect to reach inbox zero. You can, however, work diligently to keep your unread emails to a minimum.
Solution: Focus on personal productivity, use all project management tools at your disposal, and delegate appropriately.
Here’s to a more productive day!