Productivity Porn: How to achieve ‘inbox zero’ in 60 minutes or less

Flickr photo via hyperdashery

Whether you perpetually have hundreds if not thousands of emails in your inbox, or you’re coming back from a long weekend or true, “unplugged” extended vacation, you have a problem.  It’s not realistic to declare “email bankruptcy” and start from scratch, but the last thing you want to do is waste your entire first day sorting through email. That’s no way to get real work done.

Almost one year ago to the day, I came back from a short two-week paternity break to more than 2,000 unread emails. An hour later I was down to 12 emails in my inbox.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a ton to do and get caught up on. But my inbox was not my to-do list. To quickly get caught up and stay focused on what was immediately most important the rest of the day and week, here were my best practices for sorting through an overwhelming inbox.

(These tips work whether you’re coming back from a long period away or if you’ve just let your inbox get out of control.)

Write down the time and # of unopened emails. The job at hand may intimidate you, but it’s going to be really cool to look back at where you started from. Trust me.

Delete everything that’s not important or urgent. This means status notifications, spam, newsletters, Twitter alerts, etc. You don’t really need to be caught up on each and every one of these, especially since new ones will start flowing later the same day. To quickly get through the backlog of email and focus on what’s important moving forward, it’s critical that you declare “information bankruptcy” on the vast majority of information you otherwise may have consumed in the time you were away.

Matt Heinz

Sort email by conversations and delete all but the most recent mail. Gmail does a great job of this for you automatically, but Outlook makes it easy to do as well (so does the Mac, even if you’re using Outlook). Don’t worry about attachments you may have missed. Worst case you can go find them in your Deleted Items folders, but chances are you won’t need them (or they’ve been made irrelevant by someone else’s response or a more updated version anyway).

Separate all emails where you’re only on the CC line and put them in a separate folder to read later. Most of these you will scan and delete quickly, eventually, but these emails don’t need your attention right away. If you were a priority participant or contributor, you wouldn’t have been on the CC line. And if someone does really need your attention on one of these, they’ll find you directly now that they know you’re back.

Write down the time & # of unopened emails again. You will be amazed at how may emails you’ve already eliminated from your inbox, and how quickly it happened. The next few steps will take a little more time, but this quick update will help motivate you.

Complete, respond to and delete any email that takes a minute or less. These might not be the more important and urgent tasks on your list today, but you can bang through these quickly, get them off your plate, and it’ll not only make you feel good to get stuff done but will take advantage of the “fog” you’ll still have getting back into work mode. None of us are 100% ready to tackle our most important work the morning after being away. Getting through the quick, fast and easy stuff makes you immediately productive but in a way that helps get your brain and creative juices back in gear.

With what’s left, make project and to-do lists for the next 3-4 days. The rest of the content of your inbox is going to take you longer to complete, but it doesn’t all have to get done right now, or even today. Start making lists of projects and tasks to complete in the coming days, and separate those lists by deadline or context. If it doesn’t have to get done today, put it on tomorrow’s to-do list. You’ll likely tackle some of those things later today anyway, but put only the critical items on today’s list. Whether you use Outlook Tasks, pen and paper, or something in between, get the list organized in a way that isn’t intimidating and isn’t in your inbox.

Congratulations! You just sorted hundreds of emails in record time. Before you take a victory lap, or get lost in your RSS reader, dig immediately into your priority tasks for today. Get at least one done before moving on.

All the work above has helped you ease back into work, gradually start getting things of substance off your plate. Now your plate is clear, the backlog is gone, and you can focus on what’s most urgent and most important.

Matt Heinz is president of Heinz Marketing, a Redmond-based sales & marketing firm. You can connect with Matt via emailTwitterLinkedIn or his blog. He writes occasionally on GeekWire under the column Productivity Porn. Previous columns…An introduction to productivity porn: How to be lazy, productive & successful… 15 New Year Resolutions for Entrepreneurs.… Productivity Porn: 7 tricks for beating procrastination.

  • Lawrence Lam

    Believe it or not I do a lot of these already but that To-Do List is what’s killing me. it’s  just building up and buliding up

    • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

      Organization and execution are very different things!  But execution without organization may be focused too much on the urgent instead of the important.  It ain’t always easy!

  • Guest

    Step 1: Flag all the e-mail that needs your attention.

    Step 2: Move all the rest into a folder called “old.”

    Step 3: Attend to each message, one at a time, moving it to the “old” folder when you’re done.

    Step 4: Profit!

    • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

      I like that system!  It’s all about prioritizing your objectives and triaging your time.

  • Forrest

    For the most part my email runs through similar filters before it reaches me. I use wildcard email addresses for third parties as a starter. Those get filtered on a variety of rules and put in different folder/labels accordingly.

    If an email actually reaches my inbox, chances are it’s actually important. Otherwise it’s all sorted and filed, and ready for me to deal with at the appropriate time… and for some of those messages that’s never :)

  • Honna3030

    Hmmm so this is why I have to track him down yet again instead of him politely responding to my first email?

  • http://twitter.com/EmailDoctor Monica Seeley

    Brilliant.  These are all ideas we include in our regular Brilliant Email webinars and workshops. In addition I’d add how to keep track of what has an outstanding action, eg create a task list/calendar entry.

    You might find our Nine Ps of Smart Email Management will help you keep the inbox zero status see http://bit.ly/r9hx2W

  • Munir Qureshi

    theres an easier way to all of this… dont disconnect to that point… check your email 10 min every day and when you get back you dont have to waste more than 10min. lets face it 10min of work connection even on the most disconnected holidays is actually fun time. i have never had more than a days worth of emails in my mailbox in 8 years working with one o fthe largest corporations in the world as a regional leader.
    MAQ