You’ve probably heard about Inbox Zero, but have you heard of Inbox Infinity? Is Inbox Zero still relevant? Is it even possible?
The volume of email we receive continues to increase, despite the introduction of instant messaging platforms (e.g. Slack, Yammer, Skype Chat) that were hoped to replace emails from colleagues.
According to RescueTime’s recent Work Life Balance Study, as knowledge workers, we now (on average) spend a massive 40% of our day inefficiently multitasking with communication tools; we check email and IM every 6 minutes and spend just 2.8 hours a day on productive tasks!
What’s the solution? How do we lift above the inevitable email communications load, optimise our focus and enjoy the motivating sense of progress and getting things done? Perhaps the solution is taking the best from the opposing concepts of Inbox Zero and Inbox Infinity.
What is Inbox Zero?
Inbox Zero is a term coined in 2007 by Merlin Mann, the founder and writer of the then popular productivity blog called 43 Folders. Contrary to popular belief, the “Zero” doesn’t mean always keeping your inbox empty, rather it’s a broader philosophy about how much of your attention is in your inbox. It’s about distinguishing between your to-do list and your inbox and reclaiming your attention to do your best work.
What is Inbox Infinity?
Inbox Infinity is a new trend claiming that it’s no longer worth the effort to clear emails. In January 2019, technology reporter Taylor Lorenz explained the theory to mean: “accepting the fact that there will be an endless, growing amount of email in your inbox every day, most of which you will never address or even see. It’s about letting email messages wash over you, responding to the ones you can, but ignoring most.”
Should you adopt Inbox Zero or Inbox Infinity?
I believe we need to adopt both – aim to get your inbox towards zero by using smart strategies to process emails, while deleting as many emails as quickly as possible. By quickly deleting emails, you allow them to collect in infinite numbers in your Deleted Items folder.
This combined method works because even though the concepts advocate the opposite number of emails in your inbox, they actually share the same fundamental recommendation: address the amount of time you spend in your inbox so to safeguard attention and optimise focus.
The following 6 tips support you to do this
1. Triage emails: highlight emails from key stakeholders
Ensure that emails from VIPs visually standout in your inbox, so that you can easily prioritise them. Note an immediate response is most likely unnecessary. A same-day response (or within 24 hours) is usually considered timely and professional.
Inbox Infinity’s recommendation to ignore as many emails as possible has merit. But rather than just letting them accumulate in your inbox, once you’ve glanced at the email and determined it’s not relevant to you, immediately hit the delete button. Provided you don’t delete your Deleted Items, you can still search and find any email that’s in there. Let your Deleted Items be your infinity folder. If moving the vast majority of emails to the default Deleted Items folder isn’t for you, create another folder and create a Quick Step enabling you to move emails to the folder with just one click.
3. Filter lower priority emails
Have rules that automatically categorise and move lower priority emails (e.g. regular subscriptions, articles etc.) to another folder. Likewise, filter out automatically-generated notifications. For example, create a rule that moves all meeting acceptance email notifications immediately to your deleted folder.
4. Filter CC emails
If you receive too many emails where you are cc’d into the message, create a rule to categorise them and/or move these to a different folder. If you are intending to infrequently glance over emails where you have been cc’d, then go one step further and set up a custom out-of-office autoresponder that is only triggered when you are cc’d in an email. You could use words to this effect:
“Hi, you are receiving this auto-responder because you’ve cc’d me in your recent email. Please note that I don’t respond to cc email. If you have accidently cc’d me and need a direct response, please resend your email with my email address in the To field. Thank you for your consideration and assistance.”
5. Have a system for organising work embedded in email
Regardless of whether we prefer Inbox Zero or Inbox Infinity, we will receive important emails that have work embedded in them and need actioning. The problem with leaving these emails in our inbox is that the inbox is a very ineffective place to work from. The inbox offers an incomplete list of things we need to do, making prioritisation difficult. And, like it or not, we will be interrupted and distracted by new incoming email, which in turn leads to time-wasting multitasking.
Outlook Tasks offers an excellent place to record and organise all your to-do items, and integrates seamlessly with email. But it doesn’t matter so much what system you use, as long as you have a system for capturing and organising all your to-do items that is outside of your inbox. A hand-written to-do list can still be effective, you’ll just need to have a folder and/or category to assign to emails that require actioning.
6. Know how much time you need to process your emails and account for it
It’s useful to know how long it takes to process your emails in an average day, and to account for this in your schedule. Try using time-tracking software such as RescueTime or an app such as Timeular. If you are receiving approximately 75 emails a day, you’ll probably need 1½–2 hours to process them. To optimise your focus, check and process your emails at specific times in the day. Four times a day works well for most people: morning, just before lunch, mid-afternoon and before finishing for the day. The key is not to just read your emails, but to process them by moving them to your deleted (or other) folder and organising actions on your to-do list.
As tempting as Inbox Infinity might be, maintaining an organised and relatively empty inbox is highly effective. The outer order helps us to feel more in command and less stressed. It supports us to think constructively, to focus and to get things done. Assuming you can process your emails under a couple of hours a day, it’s most likely worth the effort. If after streamlining your inbox with these suggested strategies, you still find it’s taking too long, perhaps it’s time to delegate your email management to a trusted and capable assistant.
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