Daniel Tardy: License To Sell

5 Tips For a Zero Based Inbox

Posted in Business by elephanthunters on March 31, 2010

My email inbox is my daily to do list

I even email myself reminders when I’m out since I have trained myself to regularly read and respond to every – single – one.  (Notice I said respond and not reply).

As I write this post there are only 2 emails in my inbox.  This is fairly normal even though my inbox sees anywhere between 50 to 150 new messages per day.  I travel quite a bit, attend meetings and make phone calls just like everyone else.

It is not easy or natural for me to keep my inbox cleaned out, but thanks to encouraging posts like this one from 43 Folders, I have become relentless in the discipline of staying on top of email correspondence.  I’ve learned that if you don’t manage your email, it will manage own you.

You have the tools – use them

Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up that help me grease the bearings on the revolving email door:

  1. Use your calendar: I specifically schedule time for email.  If a meeting request comes in for that time, I’m just simply not available.  I start each day with 30 minutes of email time where I scan my inbox and hit some quick forwards and replies.  Emails that involve projects or lengthier responses get dropped into a calendar appointment specifically scheduled for working on that task.  The last 30 minutes of every day is blocked off to clear out my inbox at all cost.  I leave the office almost every single day with zero emails lurking behind.
  2. Use your team: A lot of times I receive an email that would be better handled by other players on my team.  Rather than feeling obligated to answer someone’s question, I reply and copy 2-3 other people and simply ask, “Hey Guys, What are your thoughts on this?” or “What can we do to help with this?”.  Many times a dialogue will ensue that results in everyone else resolving the issue while I just observe the exchange.  The result will often be better than if I had tried to tackle it on my own.
  3. Use your folders: If I’m gathering data or doing research for a project, I don’t let emails related to that project just set up camp in my inbox while they’re waiting around to be executed on.  I drop them in a ‘project folder’, and I put a reminder on my calendar for a time when I need to work on that project.  This way everything is in one place when I’m ready to focus on that project.
  4. Use your backbone: When I get emails that are social in nature or involve looking at something that’s not relevant to my responsibilities to my organization, I’m not above replying with a simple “I’m sorry but I don’t have time to look at this”.  I usually don’t get a reply back to that one.
  5. Use questions: Typically people don’t email us questions because we have the answers and they don’t, but because they’re hoping that we will do the thinking for them.  If I get the sense that someone is being lazy then I like to reply with a question such as: “Do we have enough time to do this?”or,”What are you hoping to accomplish with this information?”or,”What’s our plan if we can’t get this part figured out”or,”Can we chat about this in person?”…you get the idea.  More often than not they’ll reply with a more thought out response that many times ends up resolving their original issue.  The key is getting them to engage!

You can do it

Keeping your inbox clean is difficult, but with some practice you can do it.  You might not be able to do this overnight either because it takes time to implement the right tools that are needed to stay on top of it.  You’ll find yourself adjusting and correcting your processes as you go, but stick with it.  It’s just like surfing – you have to swim your tail off to get on top of the wave but once you’re up, you can ride with just a little effort.  Getting to zero the first time is the hardest part.

Since I’ve adopted this practice I’ve noticed several benefits:

  • I don’t lose emails
  • With few exceptions, I’m able to get back to everyone within a 24 hour period
  • I don’t stress about wondering if there’s something important buried in my inbox that I’m not getting too soon enough
  • I’ve developed a reputation for being dependable in this area
  • I have a greater sense of control of my work throughout the day

What other tips do you have for managing your email flow?  I’d love to hear them!

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9 Responses

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  1. Clint said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:25 am

    I like to follow the tips I learned in “The Power of Less” by Leo Babauta. http://thepowerofless.com/

    I turned off all audio notifiers (clicks, dings, bells). It had a creepy Pavlovian effect on me.

    I check email twice a day depending on the project.

    I keep my email app totally closed until 10am process to zero then close the app again, reopening at 3pm.

    My productivity shot through the roof. This may not be the best solution for everybody depending on the kind of work you do.

    • elephanthunters said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:22 pm


      Great point on the notifiers. I leave those off as well…they are anti-proactive. 🙂

  2. Erika Waters said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:49 am

    There is a great program for organizations called Mission Control based on these same principles…it’s all about scheduling time for things, including checking and responding to e-mail. Your task list gets scheduled onto your calednar along with sufficient time to accomplish each task. Checking e-mail becomes a task which in turn is scheduled on your calendar.

    In my industry of hot deadlines, I haven’t quite fully converted to only reading/responding to e-mail certain times a day (although I have hope!), but I have realized that scheduling out time for everything I need to do rather than working from a list keeps me much more focused on what I am doing and less likely to chase the “hot e-mail” that has just arrived in my inbox.

  3. Andrew said, on March 31, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Great post! Focus has become increasingly difficult as the number of inputs has grown (Twitter, Google Reader, etc.), so having a management plan for email is something I have to get better at. I appreciate your thoughts — copying this post to Evernote for future reference!

  4. Brian said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    OK, I’m in. I’m willing to give it 30 days to see if I can make it work. My email is so out of hand, it’s embarrasing. I’m putting time down on the calendar, and I’m going to make it a point to deal with it all before I leave tomorrow. Here’s hoping!!

    • elephanthunters said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:24 pm

      You can do it. You also should work with your assistant to help you with this and spend lot’s of time communicating about managing your calendar. This is a huge bonus if you have some admin help!

  5. misty said, on April 2, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for the ideas and tips (along with the posts from readers and a few other sites I have recently read). I am in need of revamping how I do my emails/electronic communication. Today, I have cleaned out the 2000 emails in my inbox and am starting a new way of dealing with it!

  6. Dale Suslick said, on April 9, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Good insights … I’ll share with our leadership team.

  7. […] email plan is based loosely on this post from Daniel Tardy, promotions manager for Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership live events, and this […]

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