Inbox Zero: You are Doing Email Wrong (Step 1)

Ever leave the office and realize that the only “work” you actually accomplished was answering or sending emails?

If this has ever happened to you, or happens to you often — and you want to actually get real work done — please keep reading.

I should also state up front that I don’t consider processing email to be actual work (unless of course, your job is somehow 100% email-driven and/or you perform a customer service function). Email is simply a communication tool, albeit an incredibly misused one (more on that in a separate post). As such, my goal in these next three posts is to free your inbox so that you can get back to getting real work accomplished.

This particular discussion covers the most efficient way to accomplish step one of my inbox zero methodology:

  1. Check email
  2. Complete/capture email
  3. Close-out email

Or simply, how to “do email right.”

How to do email right

I have been managing five inboxes successfully (i.e. maintaining inbox zero) for the last five years. I have done this by adhering to three simple fundamentals. They are listed below.

  1. Avoid sending email
  2. Establish a battle rhythm
  3. Batch process emails using step two of my inbox zero methodology

Avoid sending email

Unfortunately, email begets email — so stop sending emails.

Look at your inbox, right now. How many emails in your inbox are responses to emails that you originally sent? How many of those will you respond to? And how many of those will prompt another response? It’s a terrible cycle, and it can be avoided by using at least two much more efficient options: phone calls and meeting agendas. When to employ these preferred options varies depending on the situation, but either one of them is more efficient than an email conversation. Using these options instead of just “banging out a quick email to Bob” also requires a significant amount of willpower and/or a trusted personal organization system. However, once a trusted system is in place, the willpower requirement is significantly reduced or eliminated. I will explain the organization element in another post.

So when is it efficient or appropriate to send an email? The simple rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Will this email solicit an unwanted email response?” If the probability is “likely” or greater, then use one of your other two more efficient options (phone/meeting).

Here are some examples of efficient or appropriate use of email:

  1. As a follow-up to a discussion (phone/meeting) that includes information or files that were already promised or discussed (i.e. nothing new is being introduced)
  2. Sending FYI-type information to one or more people (i.e. no action or response required)
  3. Requesting a file from a person who will understand exactly what is being requested (i.e. a standard request)
  4. Anytime zero responses are guaranteed!

Establish a daily battle rhythm

What’s a battle rhythm? A battle rhythm is simply a dependable daily routine. The primary reason for establishing a daily battle rhythm is to ensure that key work inputs are reviewed every day so that correct priorities are established before beginning any work. Sticking to a battle rhythm also helps to avoid getting sucked into processing emails before first determining what’s most important to accomplish that day.

A battle rhythm should include all the key input processing tasks that need to be accomplished each day. For the average office worker or executive, a battle rhythm should include the same general series of tasks: calendar management, processing email, managing to-do lists, and doing actual work.

My daily battle rhythm looks like this:

  1. Open to-do list (GQueues)
  2. Open email, select calendar (avoid eye contact with the inbox at all costs!)
  3. Review the week ahead
  4. ID all key events that will require action and capture those in my to-do list
  5. Prioritize to-do list
  6. Accomplish 3-5 key tasks on my to-do list
  7. Batch process emails
  8. Repeat steps 5-7

If the idea of accomplishing real work before checking email is alien and unthinkable, it is absolutely possible to swap steps six and seven for the first round of the day only. However, keep in mind that if you are not able to start your day without checking email, ultimately, everyone but you is driving your priorities at work.

Batch process email

To batch process email means processing every email in your inbox without stopping or working on anything else. The keys to doing this most efficiently are (1) to follow step two of my inbox zero methodology and (2) process email at pre-determined times during the day.

This particular tenant of “doing email right” might be one of the hardest, simply because it involves a significant amount of willpower. The desire to accomplish the easy task (responding to the email) instead of the more complex or less pleasurable task, is a daily battle for many.

The simple truth, and the ultimate case for batch processing email, is that processing email all at once — instead of multiple or hundreds of times throughout the day — is absolutely the most efficient way. There are numerous articles explaining why responding to emails throughout the day is woefully inefficient (and considered multitasking, which is also terrible), so I will not belabor the point here. I will however, happily provide some methods for avoiding it.

Here are some additional tips to avoid email multitasking

  1. Establish times in your battle rhythm to process email, and stick to them
  2. Turn off all email notifications (e.g. smartphone lights/sounds, desktop notifications/sounds)
  3. Check email only at established times throughout the day, no matter what
  4. Let subordinates/peers/supervisors know that if they need something from you immediately, that they should stop by or call (most good leaders should know/do this already).
  5. If you are fortunate enough to be able to shape company culture, strive to create a climate where employees don’t feel required to respond to emails within minutes — it’s hurting your business

In summary

  1. Don’t send email unless you‘re guaranteed to not get a response
  2. Establish a battle rhythm that includes a time to batch process emails — and stick to it!

Stick to these simple concepts and I guarantee that you will find yourself with much more time to accomplish your priorities.


Also published on Medium.

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