3 Steps to empty your Inbox (and keep it that way)

January 26, 2018

For the past 10 years I’ve lived with a completely empty inbox, and it has been wonderful. I don’t sift through hundreds of unread emails looking for a request I forgot to respond to. I don’t juggle multiple to-do lists. And I don’t end up with too many meetings and not enough time for doing tasks.

Here are 3 steps to help you empty your inbox and keep it that way.

STEP 1: Manage your inbox; don’t let it manage you

Now this may sound like a fluffy aphorism, but there are some real, concrete problems that result from not managing your inbox. And there are some real, concrete actions you can take to fix these problems.

The problems are this:

  1. People expect you to respond immediately to emails
  2. People CC you on every email (and expect you to read them)
  3. You get too much email
  4. You have too many meetings and not enough time to do your own work

The common thread with all of these problems is that other people are managing your time for you. They are dictating what you do and when you do it. They aren’t trying to be rude or malicious, rather you have invited them to do this to you by not actively managing your own inbox.

So here are some actions you can take to regain control:

  1. Turn off your email alert, and schedule time to read emails
    • People expect you to immediately respond to emails… because you always immediately respond to emails. If you turn off the alert and limit your email time to scheduled periods in the morning and afternoon, then people will notice and change their expectations. They will call or visit you if there’s truly an emergency, but for the rest, they will leave you to respond at your own pace.
  2. Stop reading CC emails (or just skim them at most)
    • A CFO I worked for received several hundred emails a day; too many for him to read each one in detail. So he set up a rule to color all incoming CC emails as yellow, and he wouldn’t read them. Similar to the last point, people notice if you never respond to CC emails and they will adjust their expectations of how you respond.
  3. If you do steps 1 and 2, you’ll notice that your volume of email will naturally decrease. People with actual emergencies will call or visit you to discuss them instead of volleying emails back and forth. Others will send fewer unnecessary emails, because they know you won’t read them or respond to them.
  4. Let’s get back to this in step 3

STEP 2: Understand that there is no such thing as email

This isn’t a Zen riddle like “there is no spoon” or “what’s the sound of one hand clapping”. Rather, any email you receive is actually one of three things. It’s either information that you need to file, it’s something you need to do (an activity), or it’s a meeting you need to attend.

To put it more simply; email is time. Every email is a request for you to spend time filing, doing, or meeting.

So how do you put that into practice?

STEP 3: Live in your calendar, not your inbox

Since email is time, you should manage it in your time management tool; i.e. your calendar.

Reading emails and filing the informational ones takes time, so schedule time in the morning and afternoon to do so. I schedule 30 minutes first thing in the morning, 30 minutes before/after lunch, and 30 minutes in the evening. Remember, this time is for sorting and filing emails only. Don’t stop midway through and begin doing activities or running off to impromptu meetings.

For emails that are activities, drag them from your inbox into your calendar. Block off an appropriate amount of time for each activity, and space them out so you have a steady workload. For items with a firm timetable, I mark that designated time as “busy” on my calendar. But for items that are more flexible, and I mark that time as “tentative”. Once you do this, you can throw away your to-do lists, because you calendar is now your to-do list!

Over time you’ll notice that the meetings seem to take care of themselves. People will avoid scheduling meetings at times that you’ve marked as busy or tentative on your calendar, and your schedule will become a more steady balance of meeting time and working time.



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