Addicted to email? Here’s how to get your inbox down to zero

January 12, 2016

As we all tucked into Christmas dinner or sat down to watch the Bond film  over the festive break, huge swathes of the nation harboured a guilty little secret.

Perhaps you were one of those people, and now it’s time you came clean.

Go on, admit it: instead of having fun or chatting to Auntie Barbara, you were secretly worrying about how big your email inbox would be when you returned to work.

If you’re a chronic sufferer of email addiction, you were also sneaking off to have a quick check on your phone, or turning those notifications back on so as to hear every single message as it arrived. Oh, the clanging chimes of doom.

If that sounds remotely familiar, then let the New Year mark a new you. Thankfully, there is a better way to deal with your inbox.

Treat your inbox as a thing to process, not just to checkCredit:Mint Images Limited / Alamy

Here are six tips to change how you think about email, forever.

1. Rethink your inbox

Treat the inbox itself as just the place where emails land, not where they stay. Most people’s inboxes include a mixture of newly arrived emails, the ones you’re keeping because you haven’t replied yet, the ones that remind you that you’re waiting for someone else’s response, the junk you ought to unsubscribe from, the ones you ought to read if only you had more time, and the ones you haven’t quite got round to clearing up.

This is confusing, because every time we scan up and down the inbox, we’re asking our brains to remember which is whic -, and it’s difficult to see the major actions in among all the other rubbish.

And when they “fall off the first page”, your mind knows there’s trouble brewing down there somewhere.

The good news is you don’t actually need to have everything completed to get clarity, you just need to have control over what’s there.

So treat your inbox as a thing to process, not just to check – and aim to get the inbox cleared out to zero at least every few days.

Be ruthless about deleting emails you don’t needCredit:Alamy2. Be ruthless

Remember that so much of the email we receive is just noise. We therefore need to adopt the 800 to 20 rule: for every 800 emails you receive, around 20 will matter. The other 780 can either be deleted, filed or very quickly answered.

A great way to hack it back down towards zero is regularly changing the view of the emails on the screen. When you sort by date, remove anything more than a few weeks old; when you sort by subject, look for the strings of conversation that you can file away or delete quickly; and when you look by person, you’ll notice who are your major inbox overload offenders.

The trick is to look for opportunities to make one decision about a handful of emails, and keep changing the view to give you new opportunities to be ruthless.

3. Separate the ongoing stuff from the reference stuff

Use “processing folders” called @action, @read, @waiting (the @ symbol just brings them to the top of your folder structure) so you can very quickly see only the things you’re working on.

This also makes it much easier to get the inbox down to zero and focus on what matters.

4. Big buckets not tiny cups

Change your reference folder structure to make slashing to zero quicker and less confusing. This is counter-intuitive to most people, but it’s actually far easier to have a small number of “big bucket” folders, rather than an intricate maze of sub-folders and sub-sub-folders.

Turn off your notifications to give yourself a breakCredit:© RayArt Graphics / Alamy/RayArt Graphics / Alamy

Imagine throwing a screwed up piece of paper across the room: do you want to aim for one huge bucket, or one of hundreds of tiny cups, with a doubt in your mind about which is best?

The “big bucket” approach removes friction and makes it easy for you to file quickly. It also makes emails easier to find when you need them, since there are fewer places to look.

5. Automate

Let the technology do some of the work. Both Outlook and Gmail can do a lot of the labor for you.
For example, in Outlook, set up a folder called “circulars” and have all your Linkedin notifications, newsletters and other things that fit into the category of “I still want emails from them, but they’re usually low-priority noise”, filed automatically into there.

In Gmail, use the Boomerang app to tell particular emails to get out of your inbox and return on a day and time you want to deal with them.

6. Turn off the pings

Noisy notifications mean email is a huge source of unproductive interruptions. To learn to live a life outside our inboxes – where the real stuff happens – we need to stop being constantly nagged to jump back in.

And if you want to take one tiny action right now that will dramatically improve your email productivity for the whole of 2016, that’s a great place to start.

How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott is published by Icon priced £8.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit

This article was from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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