I know, I know. You’ve heard it all before. 

I get it. We’re over the email stuff. It’s been said before, and you’ve heard every trick in the book. 

Well, I don’t care. I’m going to post about “Inbox Zero” anyway.

Because if you’re like me, just because you could teach a master class on “email productivity” doesn’t mean you’re an email ninja. 

In fact, if you’re really like me, you’re far from it. 

You wake up to find 7 new emails bouncing at you on your phone, and decide to answer them. 

You get to work and discover that 2 of the 4 you’ve responded to have come back with responses again. 

You try to get some work done, but there’s that beautiful “ding” sound again…

You get up for lunch, but not before checking just one more time…

Enough is enough. 

It’s 3 pm where I am, and this is what my inbox looks like: 

Inbox Zero

Gotta love that feeling. 

Basically, while I’ve read all the “rules” and “guidelines” about checking (or not checking) email, here are my top three takeaways, and what I try to hold myself to:

1. Email is not a to-do list.

If you’re using your email inbox like a to-do list, you’re probably getting stressed more often than you should. Think of an inbox like, well, a mailbox (a physical one) that’s outside your house. 

You don’t leave stuff in it and then put the flag up to remind yourself that there’s stuff in it, right? 

Well, then don’t leave emails in your inbox and flag them for later. 

(I do this a lot. I hate myself for it, but I still do it. It’s a natural response for me to think, “I’ll just answer/respond to/do this later.” Stop it. It’s killing you. 

What to do instead: 

Get a program to handle your to-do list. Simple. 

When you get an email and decide to respond to it (see below), respond to it immediately. Don’t wait a few days, hours, or even minutes. Usually responses can be quick — as in a few sentences or less, but if not, see if scheduling a phone call or face-to-face meeting is better than the inevitable stream of back-and-forth messages that will ensue. 

If you don’t want to respond to it or deal with it right away, stick it in your to-do list management application. This can be paper and pencil, but it needs to be separate. I use an app called Things for Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and I love it. It follows the popular GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology, and it plain works. 

I know that moving stuff from your inbox to your to-do list doesn’t actually help get things done, but it frees you up to get the most important stuff done. That’s a subtle but crucial difference. 

Key takeaway: File it, forget it, and get to it later. 

2. Email should be short and sweet. 

My wife hates that I used to use the “Three Sentences” method in emails: every email I wrote had this disclaimer at the bottom: 

Q: Why is this email three sentences or less?
A: http://three.sentenc.es

When you click the link, it says: 

“three.sentenc.es is a personal policy that all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be three sentences or less. It’s that simple.”

Not exactly super-social, but man it saves time. 

I still buy into the method and will try to use short, snappy messages as often as possible, or use pre-written responses to questions like “Can I write a blog post on your blog?” (See TextExpander for a great way to do this). 

Key takeaway: Focus on getting to the point, so you can focus on getting back to work. 

3. Email should be a scheduled to-do item each day. 

Maybe you don’t have a regular schedule like I do, and that’s fine. But don’t give up the opportunity to schedule your email sessions. If you’re in-between projects, making dinner, or walking the dogs, sure, answer that 1-question email quickly and get it done. 

If it’s going to require more thought, energy, or checking around for an answer, however, don’t answer it right away. 

This alone is probably the hardest thing for me. I’m King Procrastinator when it comes to writing — meaning I’ll use anything as a discretion. Email? You bet. 

Try as hard as possible to adhere to a few rules: 

  • I will only answer emails X times per day (for me it’s 3 times)
  • I will only answer emails during these scheduled X times (for me it’s after I sit down at work with my coffee, right after lunch, and right when I get home to start writing/working on business stuff)
  • I will schedule my to-dos better (I fire up Things and move things around right at the end of the workday so that I know exactly what I’m doing the next day)

You don’t have to follow these rules exactly, but the point is that you should have rules. Set them for a week and see how you do, then alter them as needed. 

Doing “email” in your email program and “to-do management” in your to-do app is a pretty obvious and simple thing, but it can be the bane of our existence if we slip into bad habits. 

Try these out, see what you think, and leave a comment below and let me know how it goes!

Have some email-fu tips of your own? Leave a comment!