3 Techniques I Follow to Maintain Inbox Zero (With Examples)
40.6 billion! That’s how many more emails were delivered in February 2021 compared to February 2020. During the same period, the time people spent in meetings went up by a startling 148 percent!
When Ray Tomlinson implemented the first email program in 1971, he probably hoped it would increase productivity and reduce stress at work. Fast forward 50 years and the tool has done the exact opposite. It seems there’s no way out. Many people seem to have resigned themselves to this problem and treat their inability to manage the deluge of emails like the weather. (“I know it’s bad, but what can I do?”)
Inbox Zero seemed a plausible solution. However, it made things worse because it turned sorting and answering work emails into a never-ending task in itself. People began to spend more time in their inbox than they spent on doing actual work that moved the needle. But Merlin Mann, the inventor of Inbox Zero, claimed people had misunderstood the concept.
Inbox Zero doesn’t mean keeping your inbox as neat as your school notebooks. Nor does it mean answering emails within seconds to maintain the magical number zero when it comes to unread emails. It means receiving fewer emails for each email you send and having the bandwidth to respond to more emails than you receive. This happens when your emails move tasks closer to their completion instead of merely putting the ball in someone else’s court. As a result, you can invest your time and attention in making meaningful progress at important tasks.
Understanding the real meaning behind Inbox Zero improved my productivity dramatically. I transitioned from an employee to an entrepreneur who ran a profitable content marketing agency for years. Now I write articles, interview entrepreneurs and experts on my podcast, and work as a senior editor for a major sports publication.
Here are 3 techniques that helped me achieve it (with examples).
#1. Search-friendly headlines
A frustratingly common practice at work is resending emails. Colleagues and managers complain they can’t find the email we sent a few days prior. So we browse through our Sent folder, opening, reading, and closing emails until we find the right one. In effect, we waste 10 minutes on a task we can avoid altogether.
A simple way to buck this trend is to write email subject lines assuming your recipients will search for them. For instance, after each all-editors’ meeting at our publication, I email a summary of the action points to the team. Instead of writing a lazy subject like “Editor MoM”, I write “[Date] editor meet action points.”
Taking a few seconds to draft such a subject line saves me twice the time in the future. When added up for all the emails I send, this alone frees up about four extra hours for me each month.
Treat your subject line like the headline of an article trying to rank in Google search results. The latter has specific keywords relevant to the user’s intent. Likewise, detailed yet specific email subject lines will make life easier for you and your recipients.
#2. The “If-Then” Technique
Trail mails are another common trend at work that makes you want to smash your laptop or smartphone against the wall. A colleague sends an email to a dozen recipients, whose responses multiply like mating bunnies, creating more problems and anxiety.
Most trail mails are a result of confusion and ambiguity. They also lead to passing the buck for so long that the buck gets lost. You need a simple technique to reduce follow-up questions and separate dialogues. For me, it’s “If-Then,” a technique I borrowed from The 4-Hour Workweek. “If-Then” addresses multiple “what if” scenarios in a single email so stakeholders can take action instead of running in circles.
For instance, when I was running the content marketing firm, if I suspected that a creative for a client hadn’t arrived, my earlier email to an account manager would’ve been:
Has the creative for the client arrived?
But after applying the “If-Then” technique, the email became:
Has the creative for the client arrived? If yes, please ping me on WhatsApp. If not, please connect with David at [contact number] or [email address] to know the status (he’s also CC’d).
@David, if there are issues with delivering the creative, please contact Leha on [contact number] and coordinate with her.
In case of an emergency, call me on my cell phone. But I trust you two.
You can use the If-Then technique for every multiple-scenario case, including to schedule appointments when you don’t have access to people’s calendars. Thus, an email that reads, “Can we talk at 3:00 PM?” becomes “Can we talk at 3:00 PM? If so… If not, please three other times that work for you.”
#3. Bottom Line Upfront (BLUF)
Lack of clarity is a major reason why emails don’t even elicit responses many times.
Much of this is because people get sucked into the temptation of sharing what they want to say while writing emails rather than what recipients need to know. They take so long to get to the point that recipients lose interest.
But smart executives know that an email is not a story where they build the suspense until it culminates into a climax. They know recipients have short attention spans, which is why they present critical information before providing deeper context.
Author and US Navy veteran Kabir Sehgal shared a technique military personnel use, called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). It means stating the key information recipients need to know upfront.
For instance, if I wanted to inform writers about an upcoming workshop, a standard email would probably read:
I know you’re doing some great work when it comes to writing articles. Creativity is at an all-time high. I think we should consider conducting workshops in the next month to improve the quality of our content even further. This has been approved, so I am going to schedule it for the first week in September.”
When I applied the BLUF technique, the email read:
This is to inform you of a workshop on writing compelling headlines being held on 3rd September at 8 PM IST / 10:30 AM EST / 3:30 PM London Time.
It’s an effort to further strengthen your headlines so you can increase the click- and read rates of your articles.
Musab has approved the workshop, so kindly add this date to your calendars.”
You don’t get a promotion or raise based on the number of emails you send, but based on the results you deliver. And email is a handy tool that enables you to achieve results by getting things done from others.
When you spend a few minutes drafting thoughtful emails, you save hours of time in the future. Plus, your writing creates a positive impression of you in others’ minds and helps you win friends.
The above techniques will help you declutter your inbox. They won’t bring down the number of unread emails to zero. But they certainly will let you prioritize what’s important, reduce anxiety, and establish a healthy work-life balance.
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