When I entered the corporate world last year, one of the most difficult things I had to grapple with was email. Specifically, the infamous email deluge.
Believe it or not, in my 15 years as a journalist and subeditor, I didn’t have to deal with the scary amount of emails most corporates have to. We journalists (at least in my former newspaper organisation) prefer to march to a person’s desk and talk to people if we want to get things done. We’ve also long accepted that email is the way beurocrats brush us off, so most of us would rather follow up physically than to wait for an email.
I can go on and on and on about how annoyed I am with the way corporations use email (“It’s to cover your ass,” said more than one corporate executive to me), but the fact of the matter is the deluge is here to stay and nothing’s going to change anytime soon.
Anyway, long story short - when I finally entered the corporate world, I lacked serious skills in managing an overflowing email inbox. What’s worse - my organisation used Gmail (corporate version) instead of Outlook, so I didn’t even know how to properly use this software.
I couldn’t follow conversations.
I couldn’t find critical emails.
I often lost track of what’s on my task list.
I often missed assignments and instructions.
I wasted a lot of time searching for emails.
It was seriously, seriously affecting my work. So I had to do something about it.
After months of watching Youtube videos and reading blog posts, and experimenting, I finally found a system that I could use effortlessly. I’ve been using it for months and it’s worked well so far:
Step 1: I changed the way I think about my inbox
Repeat after me: Your inbox is not your To Do list. Try to picture it as a physical mailbox: Do you leave your mail in there and then rifle through it once in a while to read messages? No, you take the whole lot into your house and sort through them. Same philosophy.
Your inbox is your collecting tray. It’s a tool to capture emails.
Step 2: Set up Outlook to achieve maximum efficiency
I have four major folders in Outlook:
1. Inbox - this is where emails are captured.
2. To Do - actionable emails with tasks/instructions are filed here.
3. To Read - Non-actionable emails that contain content that I need to read
4. Archive - This is where my emails, divided by projects, departments and function, lie - for example:
Step 3: Categorise emails
Read this first: How to categorise emails in Outlook
In my To Do folder, I categorise my emails into:
1. Urgent (in 24 hours) - to solve in a day
2. When possible (by a few days)
3. When receiving a reply (items that I can only act on once I have a reply ])
4. Unsure - tasks or emails that I'm unsure how to act on and need further clarification
Step 4: Set up quick steps
Sure, I can physically do this by moving the emails one by one to the folders. However, if you have an email inbox with many, many folders, you can waste precious seconds (even minutes) trying to find the folder. Therefore, I create quick step buttons to do all this at the click of a button. Love it!
Step 5: Create rules to automatically file emails
I get emails from digests that I usually set aside to read. So, I use Outlook's Rules to filter them and auto-move them to the "To Read" folder. Therefore, instead of physically doing it myself, these emails will be automatically filed into the relevant folder. My favourite feature of Outlook by far!
Step 6: Practice healthy inbox habits
All the organising and structuring in the world would be useless if you don’t practice “healthy” inbox habits. In general, my habit consists of these rules:
Check my inbox at set times in a day. Meaning, I don’t check it every single minute. I usually check my inbox around 10am in the morning and around 3pm each day.
Clear my inbox to zero once a week. I usually sit in a cafe every Saturday to sort through my email while sipping a cup of coffee. It’s actually a rather relaxing activity for me!
There you have it - my Inbox Zero system! I’ve been using it for months and it’s been effortless so far.
Not to say that I achieve inbox Zero every single day. Some days, it’s just impossible - I receive 100-200 emails a day at times (and that’s apparently on the low side in my current company!). However, I make it a point to achieve Inbox Zero at the end of each week.
And a caveat: My system may not work for you 100%. My system is highly personalised to my work situation and your work may call for a different system altogether.
Whatever it is, it’s important for you to experiment and try out various techniques. Inbox Zero is not a myth - it’s totally achievable. Good luck!