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Every day, 269 billion emails are sent, and the number is only expected to grow. Tamaryn Tobian, principal of public relations firm Spectacle Creative Media, successfully tamed her email and improved her productivity. Here’s how.
Embracing inbox zero seems like a monumental task, but I knew I had to do something when I realized I was dropping balls by not properly following up on important matters. The breaking point came when I had scheduled an important media interview for a client and missed a crucial email: The reporter needed to reschedule. That was an embarrassing moment for me, trying to be professional with my client and not realizing the reporter wasn’t showing up.
My file system of starring/flagging emails needed to be set up consistently across all devices, but it simply didn’t translate between my mobile phone and my web-based email. I would read something on my phone on the go, but it wouldn’t be filed properly on my desktop for later reference, so I would forget about it.
I had read about “inbox zero” and decided to give it a try about a year ago. Today, my goal is to hit inbox zero twice per day with my business email, and achieving this has been unbelievably helpful in improving my work.
Prepare to Embrace Inbox Zero
Just like decluttering your closets, sometimes the hardest part is knowing where to start.
Some people start by declaring email “bankruptcy;” that is, literally deleting your entire current inbox to start fresh, but that was too aggressive for me. Instead, I devised a four-file system where I categorized my existing inbox and created new email folders so I wouldn’t lose current important messages, but would also be able to start fresh going forward.
As I slogged through my inbox, I deleted a ton of outdated newsletters and other items I wouldn’t need. Then I moved the remaining items to four folders:
- Waiting for Reply
The archived folder is for messages associated with client communication or completed projects that I don’t currently need but might need to refer to at some point. As a small business owner, it’s smart to maintain records of everything, but you don’t want them clogging up your current view.
Maintain Your System
Now each morning when I open my email, I respond to the messages that I can immediately take care of, which feels satisfying.
Next, I file what's urgent but needs more time.
Then I file emails where I’m waiting for a reply or that I need to follow up on.
Finally, I put the action items that aren't urgent in the “To-Do” folder.
I can then work through the “Urgent” and “To-Do” folders throughout the day. After lunch, I clean out the inbox again the same way, and I try to do it one more time before leaving the office.
Of course, having these files could easily become its own form of bloat, where you feel accomplished just because you’re moving stuff around. That’s when you have to remember why you’re working in inbox zero in the first place — to stay on top of everything.
So I have stayed committed to the system and review or clean out these action folders daily or weekly. For example, I review the “Urgent” and “To-Do” folders daily, and then I’ll check the “Waiting for Reply” folder weekly so that everything in there doesn’t just disappear into a black hole. And there’s nothing more satisfying than moving things to the “Archive” folder.
Working With a New Sense of Calm
I still spend an incredible amount of time in my email — as an independent public relations professional, it's where a lot of my work gets done. That said, what I have now is a better system — that works across all my devices — to help me triage the incoming messages, stay on top of action items and transition in and out of urgent and non-urgent tasks. I can better prioritize which items are the "fires" and which would just be interruptions that don’t need immediate action.
Having three basic folders has been a huge help. With the old file system, I suffered from the twin syndromes of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind" or “now, where did I put that?" That meant that to-dos and important emails were going unanswered or completely forgotten. This system has allowed me to stay on top of what's on my plate and be a better business partner all around.