Getting to Inbox Zero is like having the fog lift from in front of you and your goals for your firm. It helps you become more productive and get focused on what’s really important. It also allows you to stop acting like a reactive firefighter, putting out other people’s daily fires, and become proactive about your business.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I’ll gently remind you again. Email is a place where other people store their own agendas. All someone has to do it hit send on a task and suddenly it becomes your responsibility. By allowing email to take over a significant portion of your day, you’re allowing other people to dictate your agenda and priorities for you.
So how do you reach the holy grail, Inbox Zero, every single day? It’s all about the right objectives and habits for your firm. This article will help you get clear on what to do with your inbox every day so you can get back to working on the tasks that really matter in your firm.
1. Get clear about your job and your objectives
You likely didn’t start your own firm or become a partner because you’re really good at spending half a day in your inbox. Think about why you have the position in your firm that you do. What are the most important objectives you need to achieve in your job? How do you know you are doing a good job?
It’s time to get back to those original goals that you set for yourself when you started this position. Getting to Inbox Zero starts with having clear goals and objectives to work towards. Why? Because this is all about habits. To effectively change any habit, you need to look into the underlying beliefs and have a clear picture of what you want to achieve.
Steven Covey said in the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “If we don’t have a clear idea of what is important, of the results we desire in our lives, we are easily diverted into responding to the urgent.” … like emails
Answer the following questions to start to get clear on your goals and objectives:
How often do you check your email throughout the day?
How often do you check email during personal time and vacations?
Do you always check your email when you hear the new email alert on your phone or computer?
What are the most annoying aspects of email?
Does your family ever get frustrated with your email habits?
Picturing your goals
What would you do with an extra hour every day?
How would you feel reaching Inbox Zero every day?
How would it feel to leave your work at the office and not have to check emails when you’re home with family at night?
What is the project that you have been postponing for weeks, that has a big risk of backfiring if you don't tackle it?
What are the three things you want to accomplish this year that you never seem to have time to make progress on?
What would it mean to your firm if your entire team had one extra hour a day?
2. Stop Multitasking
I’m sure you’ve already read this before, so this is just your reminder, multitasking is a myth. According to research done at the University of Michigan, productivity goes down when people try to do more than one task at once. In fact, it can take up to 50% more time to complete both tasks if you work on them at the same time versus separately.
If you, like most accountants, are so overwhelmed with email that you try to do them while on the phone or in meetings, you’re not saving as much time as you think… and people can usually tell when you’re disengaged. The human brain can only focus on concepts sequentially, meaning it has to disengage from one task to work on another and this takes time.
So what do you do? Start by accepting that you can’t actually multi-task and that it ends up wasting more time. Most people know this but still never do anything about it. To commit to this idea, start creating a schedule for yourself every night for the next day (there’s psychology behind why you do it the night before but essentially it’s easier for your brain to commit to things the day before). The schedule should include 6 tasks each taking about 1 hour. That leaves time in your day for interruptions and emergencies, while still allowing you to batch tasks together in 1 hour intervals and avoid multi-tasking.
If you’re a compulsive email checker that has a hard time keeping out of your inbox, you can change your server settings to only push email through at certain times a day. This would mean email only comes through in batches at allowed times.
This sounds like a radical change but it might be what you need if you’re having trouble managing the problem on your own. It could also be a huge help to your team members struggling with the same problem. If you don’t want to go too long without email, you could start by setting it to push emails through once every hour or two, eventually working up to only 3 times a day.
Here are a few more helpful ideas to keep you focused:
1. Turn off your email notifications so you’re not constantly distracted by the ding of a new email every 20 minutes.
2. Unsubscribe from lists you no longer are interested in getting emails from to get less email.
3. Use Email Stopwatch (www.emailstopwatch.com) to track all the time you spend in Outlook so you don’t have to worry about starting and stopping a timer while you’re trying to get through your emails quickly.
3. Don’t use your inbox as a To-Do list
One of the most important reasons for your overflowing inbox is the fact that you treat the inbox like a to-list that needs to be regularly reviewed. It’s not a storage box or to-do list. It’s a place where you get messages to your company that need to be processed regularly and quickly.
The best analogy for an inbox that I’ve heard is from Joost Wouters of the 15 Minute Inbox. He says you should treat your inbox like an airport hub. Your mail enters your inbox and you need to quickly decide which terminal to send it to so it can leave the airport with minimum delays. If you keep pushing your emails around the “airport” you start wasting a lot of time and money.
Email overload happens when there’s not enough movement in your inbox and the emails pile up. It can happen whether you get 20 or 200 emails a day. The key is learning to how process emails as quickly as possible.
Here are the 4 D’s to processing email quickly:
- Delete it - do you really need this information to do your job and are you the right person to deal with it? If not, delete it and try to avoid getting similar emails in the future. You can either unsubscribe or let the sender know why you’re the wrong person to get that email.
- Deal with it - if the request can be dealt with in less than 2 minutes, do it now. If not, go to the next step, defer it.
- Defer it - if the request requires an action aside from just replying, like completing documents, reading notes from a meeting, etc, then you can defer it. This requires you create a folder in your email program titled Follow-up, add it to that folder, and then add the required task to your to-do list.
- Delegate it - if a task is emailed to you but is not your responsibility then delegate it. Just forward the message to the person who is now responsible for the task with specific instructions on what to do.
The more frequently you apply these rules and batch process your emails, the quicker you’ll get at reaching Inbox Zero every day. The key is to do this with ALL emails. Don’t leave any in your inbox to be re-read over and over again. This is a big waste of time. Remember, your inbox is like an airport and you want to get those emails in and out as quickly as possible.
4. Using abbreviations to avoid extra emails
A short and simple section, here are three suggested abbreviations you can add to subject lines or at the end of content in an email to cut back on replies. These are best used for inter-office emails or clients that you spend a lot of time emailing with:
1. NRN: No reply needed. Good if you need to let someone know information but don’t need their response.
2. NTN: No thanks needed. This cuts back on all those emails that would usually just say “Thanks for the info”. The higher up in the company you are, the more you tend to get these. People assume they’re a mandatory sign of respect but to the receiver, they’re just more email to read.
3. EOM: End of message. Can be used at the end of a subject line if there’s no message in the main email. It’ll save the reader time from having to open the email and it gets straight to the point. It’ll save you time because you won’t have to repeat the same message in the body of the email or add fluff for no reason.
One note, before you start using these abbreviations ensure your team knows what they mean. This can easily be reviewed in 2 minutes in a meeting.
5. Send less (and better) emails = get less email
Research shows that for every five emails you send, three require a response. That means if you eliminate just one out of every five outgoing emails, you’ll begin to receive ~12% less emails. So how do you decide which emails should not be sent? Ask yourself two questions.
Is the email you want to send:
- Action Oriented?
NEEDED? Does my busy recipient truly need this email to do his or her job?
If you take a moment to visualize your email recipient struggling through a busy day filled with meetings, phone calls and emails, you’ll find yourself sending less unnecessary messages. You begin sending only needed messages, emails containing information truly needed by the recipient in order to do his or her job.
Here are some examples of email types you try to cut out:
- FYI Email (no action required, just wanted to keep you in the loop. Think about whether this person really needs to know this information for their job)
- Trivial Thank You Email (nice but often unnecessary in the age of email overload)
- The Redundant Email (are you sending an email containing info that the person will get from another source like a meeting or another team member?)
- The Incomplete Email (are you giving all the relevant info and preventing the recipient from asking follow up questions? See next section on how to fix this.)
- The Email Containing Searchable Info (somewhere there’s useful info in the email but it takes 10 minutes to find it because it’s so scattered. Again, the next section will explain how to fix this.)
ACTION ORIENTED? Writing emails to minimize questions
By writing clear and concise emails, you'll dramatically cut back on emails with follow up questions. The goal is to write your emails from the mindset of the recipient. Try and think about what questions they might have surrounding the email you’re sending and address them in the email.
Here you are also leading by example. Writing clear emails will also encourage your email recipients to write future emails in a similar clear format.
Next week’s article will cover step-by-step instructions on how to write clear emails to eliminate follow-up emails.
Laura Berthiaume is the cofounder of Email Stopwatch, (http://emailstopwatch.com), an email management tool allowing managers and users to passively track all the time spent in Outlook. You can reach her with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org