Making Inbox Zero a Sustainable Goal

mailboxWithout the right plan or system in place, rushing to #inboxzero can be similar to cleaning a room by throwing everything in the closet. Yeah the room is clean, but now you’ve got a bunch of disorganized crap in the closet that you’ll have to deal with at some point. With your inbox, it may be empty now, but where did all those emails go? Were they simply dumped into a secondary inbox? What’s your plan to filter through those? Or have you ever had one of those places in your home where physical mail ends up? It goes from your mailbox to some sort of box, or mail holder, or some other place where it just kind of piles up over time. How much of that mail ever ends up being opened and acted upon?

Achieving inbox zero can work well, but only if you establish the right places for those messages to go and a plan for how you act upon them. One book that really changed the way I interact with email was “Making Ideas Happen” by Scott Belsky.

This book lays out the Action Method. The idea behind this system is that everything can be placed into one of three categories: Action, Reference, or Backburner. Action is anything that requires you to respond or act upon it. Reference is anything that either does not require action, or something of which you have already acted upon and need to keep for reference. Backburner is something that may call for action, but not anytime in the near future. Backburners are something you have the convenience of coming back to at a later point in time, after you have cleared up your actionable items.

So with email, I have structured a folder system around the Action Method. I have a primary folder labeled “Action.” This is where any email that requires a response or action goes. Secondly, I have a series of Reference folders. These folders are labeled according to current projects that I have going on. Any email that goes into these has already been acted upon. They are simply there for reference. Once the project is complete and I no longer need the messages, they go into the trash.

If an email requires action but does not need to be referenced at a later point, it gets deleted after acting upon it. If the message contains a reference item such as a file or link, I move the file to Google Drive or the link gets bookmarked. Evernote works great for saving links along with a quick note about why you are saving that link.

If the email contains an idea that would be good for later or an action that is a very, very low priority, it goes into the “Backburner” folder.

So every email has a destination point that ultimately leads to action and structured archiving. I do not strive to get my inbox to zero. My goal is actually to keep my inbox to 10 messages or less. There are messages that I just want to let float in my inbox so they remain in front of me.

Use whatever app helps you best, but use it with direction and purpose for sustainable productivity when it comes to seeking inbox zero.


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