UPDATE: I’ve detailed my complete email processing setup, including how-tos for using Gmail rules and filters, in my series, 7 Days to Inbox Zero.

I’ve aspired to inbox zero for years, but it took a new member of the Social Signal team to help bring that aspiration into focus — a team member who has utterly transformed my personal productivity. As our operations manager and my executive assistant, Morgan Brayton has reorganized our financial record-keeping, moved us into our swanky new digs, taken over our invoicing, and booked me within an inch of my life. In short, she’s pretty much realized my fantasy of what a kick-ass executive assistant could do for me, for Social Signal, and most crucially, for our clients.

There’s only been one part of the fantasy that’s gone unfulfilled: my dream of freedom from the relentless onslaught of email. Just as I used to think there was some combination of Ikea storage baskets that would turn me into a tidy person at home (actually, it’s just meant we have a spare room filled with Ikea baskets), I have more recently proceeded from the conviction that there is some combination of staff that will let me do everything I need and want to do. At the top of that list: getting through all my email, every day.

It turns out that even Morgan can’t single-handedly turn me from a 1,372-unready-messages-in-my-inbox kinda gal (no, that’s not a hypothetical number) to a zero inbox powerhouse. “Zero inbox” is the holy grail of e-mail processing: the dream that whenever you deal with e-mail, your inbox is empty by the time you’re done.

If your reaction to that is “hah!” then you’re a lot like me….ten days ago. Just ten days ago, I really did have more than thirteen hundred unread messages in my inbox. But today is the eighth day of my new zero inbox lifestyle, and it’s starting to feel like it’s going to stick.

What’s the secret? Well, it’s not that I spent four days reading 1300 email messages. Most of those went into the trashcan or got filed, and will never been seen again. But I’m pretty confident that my triage process buried no must-read, current messages. Better yet, the process I used has dramatically thinned the mail hitting my inbox, so it’s now down from hundreds of messages per day to a manageable one- or two-dozen.

It will take a few blog posts to walk through all the pieces of this system, but let me provide a quick overview of my personal workflow using Gmail, mail.app (Apple’s default mail client), iPhone and IMAP. I’m also providing an overview of how you can get to zero inbox in 10 easy steps.

My key change was to recognize that despite Tim Ferriss‘ admonition, I wasn’t ready to let go of processing my own e-mail. I like to respond to client and prospect inquiries within a day, ideally within a few hours; that’s hard for anyone (even Morgan!) to do on my behalf. So I realized I had to separate my e-mail into three categories:

  1. E-mail I want to respond to ASAP, namely, client and prospect inquiries.
  2. E-mail I need to respond to, but doesn’t need to be immediate.
  3. E-mail I can look at when I have time.

My inbox is now reserved for the mail I need to address ASAP. In practice this consists of  (a) messages from people who aren’t at Social Signal, sent to me personally (i.e. no ccs or lists) and (b) urgent messages from people on my team.

In addition, I have 9 other processing “boxes”: these are labels on Gmail that get created as local folders on mail.app (that happens automatically when Gmail syncs its labels to mail.app). These are:

  1. Voicemail (PhoneTag messages from my cel or home number; I may bring this back into inbox since I usually like to process ASAP, but for now I just check this box if I see I have a missed call)
  2. Social Signal to AWS (messages from my team, to me)
  3. Social Signal CCed to AWS (messages from my team, cced to me)
  4. External CCs (messages from non-SoSo folks, cced to me)
  5. FollowUp (messages I’ve sent or responded to but want to look at in a few days to make sure they’ve been addressed)
  6. Scheduling (invitations, meeting dates needed)
  7. Notifications (for Facebook messages, LinkedIn invitations, etc)
  8. Confirmations (from site registrations; useful to keep filed)
  9. Lists (email newsletters)

For the most part I focus my attention on the inbox, processing messages as they come in when I can, or when they are urgent; then once a day I go through the entire inbox, processing to zero.

Morgan helps me process the other boxes by reviewing for relevant material and consolidating internal messages into action items or decisions for my input. I’m able batch process these when I meet with her in person; she simply asks for my decision on outstanding messages. Every day or two I peek into Gmail’s “all mail” folder to catch anything that is being misfiled or looks interesting.

And here’s my single most crucial rule for making zero inbox a self-sustaining approach: when I process my inbox, I never do ad-hoc deletions of emails from lists, network notifications etc. I am religious about adding new terms to my filters so that anything that makes it through the filters will get caught next time.

It feels like hubris to pronounce myself cured after just eight days of my new zero inbox lifestyle. But so far, I’m spending less time on e-mail, with better results. With a thinner inbox, it’s much quicker and easier to review incoming messages and respond to priority messages. In fact, I’ve been so quick about processing my inbox that I’ve had time to peek at “all mail” every day, and I’ve yet to find anything that should have hit my inbox, but didn’t.

The most challenging aspect of my new system is the discipline it requires to respond to messages rather than deferring the decisions they require. Checking my e-mail throughout the day really helps; it lets me read messages and stew on them a bit before my end-of-day processing rolls around. Then I push myself to respond as well as I can, knowing I can send an additional follow-up message later.

That’s not just good e-mail processing: it’s good client, team and public relations. Who doesn’t like to get a prompt response to an e-mail, even if it’s just to get a “here’s what I know now, and here’s what I have to get back to you about”?  If zero inbox is a productivity practice, it’s a good reminder that productivity is ultimately about doing your best work and providing your very best level of service.


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