How I Achieve Zero Inbox and Get More Accomplished

I have a zero inbox policy. That means that, at the end of the day, nothing is in my inbox. I’m basically an achievement-driven personality; I live to knock out goals and create new ones. The inbox is therefore my loving enemy.

Why Focus on the Inbox

The inbox is an oppressive pile of mixed up things we want to do, think about, save, and track, and it kills productivity. Every e-mail is an action to take; if nothing else, you have to look at it, think about it, and do something with it (archive, delete, respond, schedule, think about, wait on (which is an action), or take some other action). The problem of so many types of activity in one place is that the inbox feels like a second job.
Most people assume that the way we do business, when it’s inefficient or hard, is just part of doing business. They don’t change it, because this requires the ultimate to-do – find a solution to simplify. I have a certain amount of my business development activity reserved for precisely the action of optimization of business processes. It’s why I can do business process consulting in the first place; I practice constant improvement (kaizen) myself.

organizationAchieving Zero Inbox:

I decide *what* every e-mail really is, and choose a tool to offload it. Each e-mail is:

  • PART OF A STREAM: of most-current something I need to track
  • AN IDEA: I need to preserve
  • A TO DO: Something I need to act on (the #1 reason things get left in my e-mail inbox)
  • A LEAD: a business relationship I need to track (a CRM item)
  • AN INFORMATION LINK: a link to info or advice I want to save
  • A WAITING ITEM: something you need to be sure you get a response to

The Inbox Killing Toolset

I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of to-do list apps and kanban approaches, document types, and note tools over the years. This is the system I’ve found optimal:

1. STREAM: I have configured Gmail’s folders (‘labels’) and subfolders in a highly efficient system that stores things in terms of *why* I want them, and set up filters to place anything I don’t need to see the same day into those folders. G-mail automatically puts the newest items in the stream at the top of each folder. I have streams for topics, social engagement, marketing, etc.

2. IDEAS: I have configured Evernote into notebooks representing issues, projects, or main areas I need to track. Into those I put notes of any ideas I need to retain, regardless of *where* they come from. It’s my cloud catch-all for long-term memory, so I can make room for more in my head. Someone wrote that SimpleNote is, by comparison, your short-term memory (it’s simpler organization than Evernote), and I use it that way too, as a fast notepad just to get from A to B when I’m mobile, along with a stylus and a handwriting notebook on the Ipad, and then I offload or use that stuff when I’m back in the office. This keeps me from having virtual post-its and notepad items up all over my screen all the time, or stored on an increasingly cluttered virtual desktop. You can’t let it build up, though. You have to offload it as soon as you get in.

3. TO-DOs: I have configured Trello to keep my to-dos prioritized on the basis of *where* and *when*. I have a Google contact set up so I can forward e-mails to a Trello card as a to-do item. Trello has the fastest drag/drop statuses of any to-do tool.

4. LEAD / CRM: I have configured Streak (a CRM for Gmail) to track my leads, prospects, and clients without leaving Gmail. And I have Rapportive in Gmail (a social presence retrieval plugin), so I can follow/connect any leads I want, from within any e-mail from them. This lets me handle the *which stage* aspect of client relations.

5. INFORMATION LINKS: I have Pinboard (a bookmarking service like Delicious) set up as both a bookmarklet and a right click context item in my browser, so I can quickly save what I need. This might be tools, how-to info, advice, etc. This handles my *how to find it* duties when I wish I had tons of time to explore every neat tool, idea, or concept, but really don’t. At least I can find it when the impetus in that area builds.

6. WAITING ITEMS: I have Yesware and Boomerang in Gmail to save me wondering if someone looked at my e-mail (Yesware tracks views) and Boomerang allows me to clear my inbox and “Boomerang” something back to the inbox if I don’t get a response by a certain time. This handles my *follow up by when* duties.

Moving Things Around is Essential

It might seem like I’m just moving things around, not ticking them off, but moving them is the point, and it’s why I can plow through and get things done (GTD fans will get it). Segregating a pile of mismatched activities into separate kinds of content is as important as segregating the aspects of running a business by setting aside time to focus on bookkeeping, marketing, partner and client relations, and business process improvement itself.

Organization is a Core Business Process

One activity I have added, therefore, to my every day overhead is organization. Organization is an essential business process in its own right, and actually saves me time. But every business process must have a goal. It’s not enough to say “efficiency” – we have to get specific. I’ve structured the chief goal of my organization process as “zero inbox”. It’s an effective symbol of the efficiency I’m trying to achieve. This translates into the ability to do more things in less time, and have more time to do more things. It means I get to watch West Wing, walk my dog, go to events, and sleep.