How to achieve inbox zero and stay there
Updated: Jan 13
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the innovative invention we call "email." Prior to the mid-nineties, businesses communicated with their clients by calling them directly or through their secretaries. If they had to share documents, the clunky fax machine or sluggish snail mail were the norm. With each communication medium going through different channels, these tools were far from being productive.
Overtime, things got better, right? Technology drastically improved. After the millennium, you could create and send emails right from your pocket. We can be online 24/7. Communicating with clients from the comfort of our home, or the neighborhood café. Our professional productivity increased. Even businesses developed powerful platforms such as an all-in-one help desk software to ensure customer inquiries get the right attention they need. Yes, we have certainly come a long way, but at what cost?
Well, according to a McKinsey analysis, the average employee spends 28% of the work day reading and answering emails. Shockingly, that’s approximately 11 hours a week, or another comparison: one entire work day per week. Yes, we spend heaps of time trying to tackle our inbox, going completely against what email was meant for: efficiency and productivity.
What is inbox zero?
The term may sound self-explanatory, but in fact, it’s not entirely about going from 150 unread emails to 0 in a day or week for that matter. Inbox zero is more of a philosophy that enables an individual to properly handle their time and priorities, rather than have their email dictate what they do next. The key to achieving inbox zero is by using the right strategies and tools (e.g. folders, labels, filters) to increase productivity.
The philosophy of inbox zero was coined in 2007 (the same year as the launch of the first Apple iPhone) by writer and productivity expert Merlin Mann. He states in his blog 43 Folders:
“Clearly, the problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.”
He proposed a simple approach for anyone struggling with email excess:
Delete: After reading the email, you can either trash or archive it (for future reference).
Delegate: If the email contents are meant for someone else (e.g. from a different department), delegate it to the designated individual.
Respond: If the answer is simple, reply immediately. If not, skip to step 4.
Defer: It’s understandable that some emails will take time to read and respond. Make sure to set up a reminder to handle it in a timely manner.
Do it: If the email requires a simple task (e.g. sending a document or link), just do it!
In order to achieve inbox zero and not be digitally buried alive, here are a few techniques to take charge of your emails and get to productivity heaven.
Rethink your inbox
Your inbox is more than a plethora of unread emails from your clients. It can actually be used as a tool in your daily workflow, similar to a task management solution. Most of the time, the contents of an email require action items that need to be completed in a specific time-frame. Use your inbox as a way to keep track of your to-do list. With the tips below, you’ll be able to set up an efficient system that works for you.
For instance, a colleague needs a customer feedback report for a user experience project by the end of next week. The right thing to say would be “send me an email with additional details on the project.” Not only do you have a paper trail between the two of you, but you’ll be able to manage your time more efficiently than having to trust your memory.
Another way to rethink your inbox is by framing it as a messaging service. Successful entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki supports these claims through an email movement that pushes the idea of writing every email in five sentences. He claims:
"Proper email is a balance between politeness and succinctness. Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time."
You probably don’t want to sound too informal like the text messages you send your friends, so make sure to add your professional touch to each email. By trimming off the excess text you will increase your productivity and workflow. And the recipient will not feel overwhelmed with text - prompting a fast reply.
Set aside scheduled time
Achieving inbox zero is not a one time task. Like any management system, regular maintenance is required to keep your inbox to a minimum. For starters, set up designated time slots throughout the day to check your email. It is recommended to check your emails at least three times a day (morning, afternoon and end of day). If you’re unsure where to start, begin day one with newsletters (read more in section: ‘Stop the spam by unsubscribing’), day two with creating folders, filters, labels, etc.
If you’re an inbox zero rookie, you most likely have not started setting up email folders, filters and labels. These three features will greatly assist you in moving specific emails out of the way to dedicated places. Read on to find out the best practices of organizing inbox clutter right when it gets sent to you.
Use filters, labels and folders
If you take a look at your inbox, you’ll notice you have a mix of different emails, some important and some that just take up space. One thing you can do to increase your productivity and sanity is to direct incoming emails to their designated folders. Meet mail filters - a frequently used email tool to automatically move your inbox jumble such as newsletters to dedicated folders, without any effort from your end.
Similar to a filing cabinet, folders simply store emails in an organized way. For example, Gmail already comes with built-in folders such as ‘Social’, ‘Promotion’, ‘Updates’, etc. You can create them for your own use such as: ‘Newsletters’, or even task-related folders ‘Must do today.’
Labels on the other hand are similar to those multicolored post-it notes you can stick just about anywhere. Unlike folders, you can add several labels to one email. Remember I mentioned earlier about using your inbox as a task management tool? Many workers use labels to mark and prioritize tasks.
Whether it’s for your email inbox or your help desk software, creating a unique set of parameters (e.g. creating ticket views and filtering options) will save you and your customer support team precious time.
Delete or archive smartly
If you’re an email hoarder (like a lot of us), you may have months of unread messages that are collecting digital dust in your inbox. Similar to Netflix’s decluttering guru, Marie Kondo question “does it spark joy?,” you can actually apply the same concept to your inbox.
To determine whether you should delete or archive an email, ask yourself these questions:
“Is the email irrelevant?” If yes, delete it. If not, take action by replying back.
“Why am I keeping it?” If you need it for future use but doesn’t require action on your behalf archive it.
Most email services like Gmail allows its users over 15GB of storage space, and that’s a lot. If you do get close to this limit, your delete button will come in handy. To be on the safe side, use a folder for your less critical business emails. Archiving on the other hand is the best option if you are not sure if you will need that email again in the future.
Stop the spam by unsubscribing
We’ve all receive emails on the daily that eat up our time. Like a promotion from a store you bought from once and don’t even remember ticking the subscribe box. If you find yourself deleting the email before opening it, then unsubscribe from the mailing list completely. To end these redundant newsletters, Gmail has a neat unsubscribe feature located next to the sender email.
Of course, you will have these recurring email blasts that do add value to you, your business and industry. For this, create a folder for all mailing subscriptions neatly tucked away. Just remember to ask one important preliminary question before subscribing to a service / newsletter: Will subscribing to this blog / service / product bring any value to me and/or my business? If the answer is ‘No’, you know the drill.
But it’s not only your email inbox that gets clogged with mountains of unneeded messages. Spam can exist in just about any channel, be it robotic telemarketing calls and even ‘customer’ support tickets via help desk software. Luckily, with Wix Answers you can easily mark a ticket as ‘Spam’ which immediately gets assigned to its dedicated folder.
Use saved replies to respond quickly
According to a survey, 60% of respondents say they wait two days to reply to their email. However, 52% who send a work-related email expect a reply within 12 to 24 hours. While these two statistics contradict themselves, the best way to quickly address each email is by using template replies. Very often, we find ourselves typing the same thing over and over again (e.g. an introductory message, a simple thank you or requesting customers for more information).
Almost every email service has the ability to create and use canned replies. Additionally, if you’re supporting your customers through Wix Answers solution, saved replies can be easily added to the agent's replies. These quick text shortcuts enable your support team to handle the easy questions in order to focus on the more complex issues.
Emails are a pillar of customer support. Learn how to write a customer service email.
Use an out-of-office message
We all dread that feeling of coming back to work after a long break, only to find you have 1,200 unread messages to sift through the entire day. Before taking time off, start by setting up an out-of-office message with flat out instructions. Most of us simply write the relevant dates and a POC for urgent matters, and that isn’t exactly complete. To avoid reaching inbox hell, here’s an example of what your message should look like:
I am currently out of office and will be back on (insert date). For this reason, I will be unable to respond to your emails. Please resend your inquiry (insert date of return). For any urgent matters, please contact my manager (insert name).
Interestingly enough, Tom Patterson, CEO of Tommy John undershirts for men, takes a completely different direction with OOO messages to maximize inbox zero. In a podcast, Tom described how his business was expanding rapidly and receiving close to 400 emails a day.
With only so many hours in a day, he couldn’t respond to all, let alone clear his own inbox. He came up with a solution, and a pretty ballsy one too - Use an OOO message while IN the office. Yes, you read that right. This is Tom’s exact automatic message:
I am currently checking email before 9am and after 5pm EST so there will be a delayed response. If this is urgent please call or text.
The results? Tom notes: "I was able to focus more on operations, strategy and it allowed me to be more present and impactful. It forced me to delegate and empower others to respond.”
Regain your sanity with email management tools
It’s common knowledge that Google’s Gmail is one of the most-used and traditional email management tools in the world. But, when it comes to supporting your customers via email, using Gmail can be overwhelming and time-consuming. Plus, customers have an array of channels to reach out to businesses which means more inbox chaos.
To overcome this, use a powerful help desk software that combines all channels (social, email and phone) that are sleekly presented in one timeline and can ensure all inquiries can be handled in a timely manner. Not only will you improve customer satisfaction and retention rates, you’ll reach new (and better) heights to provide the best customer support possible.
The list of email and task management tools goes on and on. One way to regain your email sanity, while prioritizing critical emails is a solution called SaneBox. And it’s called exactly that for a reason. Add it to your Gmail and watch the inbox magic happen. With an advanced filtering system, SaneBox weeds out the important emails from the rest. This system is based on headers and filters. Your unimportant emails go to a “SaneLater” folder and saves you precious time with a daily summary.
Improve productivity with these 20 everyday time management apps.
Use the 80/20 Rule to manage your inbox
In the early 20th century, an Italian economist by the name of Vilfredo Pareto, created a formula to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in Italy. He observed that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Coined later on as “The Pareto Principle,” and frequently praised in the business and productivity sectors, this key concept is a ratio between actionable and non-actionable items.
In terms of your abundant inbox, not all emails are created equal. In fact, 20% of your unread emails are important (e.g. urgent matters, executive meetings), whereas the remainder is fluff (e.g. newsletters, office birthdays). Keep this rule in mind when organizing your inbox.
As a business owner, it's understandable you won’t achieve an inbox of zero unread emails. You’ll always have clients contacting you left and right which is something you can’t prevent and that’s okay. With these email management tips, you now have the knowledge to focus on the important aspects of your business, clutter and hassle-free.
Ready to apply these inbox zero tips to your customer support? Manage tickets and calls with labels, filters and saved replies. Start your free Wix Answers trial today!