You carefully read each email, reply to the ones that need answering. Click “back” on your browser and look at a clean inbox with an air of satisfaction before logging out and leaving for your vacation. Just one week later, you return to a horrifying sight. Hundreds of emails all marked “urgent” and despair sets in. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a week and this can literally happen over a few days.

Can this be avoided?

A familiar pain: How to reach Inbox Zero?

Image Credit: Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

Is it possible to reach “inbox zero” status every day? It can sometimes feel like our lives revolve around a constant cycle of replying to emails. Whether we are a CEO, freelancer, student or an employee, emails pile up and is a constant source of stress and aggravation. Some people regard emails as a challenge and tackle every single one to purge their inbox.

The problem with that is that it takes up invaluable time, time that can be better spent on other tasks. Yet if the emails are ignored, they are a niggling doubt and worry that sits like a canker at the back of our mind. It goes without saying that our inbox should not rule our lives and enhance it.

Achieving inbox zero doesn’t necessarily mean having an empty inbox, it is simply put, a system or method for you to stay organized and to prioritize which emails to reply first and not get overwhelmed by sheer volume.

With a proper system in place, even hundreds of email received per day can become manageable.

A Smarter Way to Handle Your Inbox

1. Triage

Image Credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Normally a term used in medicine to sort patients according to the severity of injury/illness, triage can be used to help us quickly prioritize which do we answer or act upon and which can be delayed. Each person will have a different triage system as their job, company and nature of their industry will be different and a “one size fits all” approach isn’t the answer here. So, to avoid having a complicated system that makes it more of a hassle, simply ask yourself a few questions before deciding what to do.

  • Does this warrant an immediate reply?
  • Does something need to be done?
  • Can this be delayed?
  • Is this a top priority?

Some people adopt a 20/80 rule where they answer or act upon 20% of emails and save 80% to be read later. While not applicable to everyone, this method has helped many in email intensive industries such as journalists and media to make their inbox more manageable.

2. To reply or not to reply

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Sometimes, there are emails where you are cc’ed where it is only good for you to know about what’s happening over there rather than something that you absolutely need to know. If you can determine that it isn’t all that important, don’t read it.

Determining when and what to reply is paramount. While it may seem like an onerous task, once you’ve gained some experience in your company or industry, examine whether you really need to reply or not. Sometimes not replying is in itself a reply. If you are sending out replies and not getting any useful information or any value in return, do you really need to respond?

3. Check your email only as often as you need to

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This may seem like a no-brainer but think about it for a moment. How often do you actually check your email? Do you peek at your phone constantly? Do you deliberately leave it alone till you have some time to sit down at your desk? Or do you basically just respond anytime you hear a notification chime?

If at all possible, try to process your emails at set points in the day. Obviously, if you have any urgent communications, keep an eye out for those but otherwise, checking your emails twice or three times a day depending on how high your daily volume is.

4. Create folders and templates

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If you subscribe to a website or a blog which email you regular updates, have colleagues or a department that emails you often, organising them by folders can be your best friend. It is likely that your email provider has some inbuilt sorting feature to send emails into your folders and this can be a total game changer.

An example of a folder you can create is a “reply tomorrow” or on X day folder. This helps you to alleviate the pressure of replying to every email and also allows you time to mentally process and acknowledge the content.

If you find yourself making the same reply a lot of the time, a quick template that you can copy and paste instead of tying it out every single time will save a lot of time.  Check your “sent” folder. See if you can find any trends and classify the emails you send out and see if you can template any of them or if you actually did need to make a reply at all.

5. Timing

If you can reply to an email within a few seconds, it’s a good idea to get it out of the way. If it needs some extra thought, file it away and think about how to best respond. If you couple this with triaging what’s relevant or not, you can quickly cut through a large amount of email and find that is actually becoming more manageable.

6. Set a time limit.

It is all too easy to get buried in your inbox and mechanically reply to emails. Instead, create a system and dedicate X amount of time to replying emails and move on before returning again to process more emails. A time limit will help you to manage your time and prevent you from falling into the zombie email reply mode that we’ve all been guilty of.

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That’s it, here you have a simple process that will help you get your inbox into shape this New Year and will make your return to office after the holidays a smoother one.


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