Inbox zero. The mythical unicorn. It seems achievable for some, but not for others. Is it even possible, or is that tax rock star deleting his entire inbox moments before a presentation in order to mess with the rest of us? And, is that really their main inbox? Nowadays, nobody has just one.
The answer to how to keep your inbox organized lies in the nature of the relationship you have with it, then recognizing the “what” in order to address the situation. You can either alter your relationship with your inbox, or put into place the means and method to remove messages and make them actionable.
An Umbrella View of the Inbox
First, let’s look at how you perceive your inbox. Is it a receiver of correspondence addressed to you, a feed of activity for your firm or a set of records that need to be kept? Is it a mix of junk and regular mail, or is it comprised of your clients’ accounting-related email? I manage several inboxes, including one that achieves inbox zero every day. My main inbox, however, is a different matter. I currently have 1,279 … oops; make that 1,280 unread emails in that inbox.
How am I able to get some of my boxes to zero? I had to think about my relationship with each and every one of them, and started by making a list of the types of emails that came to each box:
- Hotmail: Junk, Starbucks promos and my work as an organizer on Meetup.com.
- Gmail: A mix of personal and professional mail.
- Name@domain.com: Client emails, notifications, usernames, security verifications, client portal username notifications and verifications, some peer and network correspondence, trade show spam, apps, invoices, billing statements, audit correspondence, webinar links, and newsletters.
Don’t forget about Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, text messaging and team boxes; those all count as inboxes, too! An interesting point is how many conversations we have in a day and how we have them. Every one of these boxes holds conversations, and one conversation in an inbox can be the gateway to several others. We also have conversations in social media groups, telephone and in person.
If you look at my list, I think you can guess which one is my main inbox by the variety of mail that passes through it: email@example.com. Yup, that’s the one with 1,280 emails in it. However, it could be worse; I actually delete or file 90 percent of my messages!
Now consider one more factor. What is your personality? Are you a neat freak, perpetually messy or an in-betweener? I have a client who is messy. Last time I checked, his inbox had more than 12,000 messages. Yet, he thinks he’s organized because he treats his inbox like an activity feed for his company. It works. Is it organized? Yes, it is an organization of a kind.
While I’m not suggesting you do nothing with your inbox, this method works for the very few – and only with specific types of correspondence.
Cleaning and Organizing: This is a Bit Technical
My first goal in taming my inbox was to manage the views across all devices. In the past, I was confident using my domain host email client to store my message history, so I kept an offline copy in a desktop mail client, just in case. This gave rise to the following problem: When I deleted a message in one of my inboxes – for example, on my phone – the email was still present in my desktop mail editor. If I filed the message in my email editor, it was still in the inbox on my phone. It was only when I applied changes at the server level that this view synced. Talk about an exercise in futility! Having a uniform view across all devices is not an automatic thing if you have domain email compared to using Gmail or another email application.
The solution was simple. I moved the email DNS records from my website host domain to Microsoft Exchange. Although I initially lost all of my mail history and inbox contents, except for what I kept offline, once the DNS was moved to an Exchange server, the contents of my inbox synced and cleaned to inbox zero from any device! Of course, inbox zero did not last for very long, and a typical file folder hierarchy on the side of my mail client just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Too much was getting lost and all the other message boxes keep filling up.
Three Key Tips to Staying Organized
What about those other inboxes – the ones that are a little too diverse to deal with in such a manner? Map it out, consider shifting what goes where, create new aliases and new procedures, get a little help from technology, and then stick to it!
#1: Consider and fix who gets what. If you are getting messages that don’t belong in that box, go to the source and change where they are sent. Go through your notification settings for different products, and take the time to tailor them to the ones you want to see. Go through your services and subscriptions you use, and cancel the ones you no longer need. Consider opening another email alias if you need another topic sorter.
I opened an “office” email address to pull out some of what comes through my main email and provide a user alias for Microsoft Office 365 for the shared computers in my firm. I also opened an office Gmail alias for the office devices Google makes us sign into. Be sure to adjust all the users who would need to be changed for any alias shifts.
#2: Find a system and take the time to set it up. You will have to decide how and by what means you will perform triage on your inbox. I already mentioned one method, but I had to take it up a serious notch for my primary email. This also goes back to the relationship with your inbox, which I’m assuming is a bit like mine. Too much mail comes to me and I need to delegate. Some of it is valid, or just what I need to see and/or be notified. The rest is usually junk. I wanted the triage to be embedded deeply within my project and client management system.
- I found and chose Microsoft Office 365, with a little help from my smartphone. My primary email is logged into my phone with most of the boxes I listed above. The inbox app on my mobile phone is a hub that groups all my inboxes in one place, which allows for targeted triage. Either through the notification panel as it comes in, or by going directly into the hub inbox (all inboxes in one stream, including social media and Office 365 Teams), I can quickly delete or answer emails as they come in. I don’t have to visit all of my different boxes.
- Heading back to my primary inbox, I have set up various automations within Office 365 to send messages into places where they can become actionable. When I flag a message, it shows up as a task on a specific task board (Microsoft Flow to Planner/Teams).
- I also set up an app that pulls in my inbox, and I can send the emails to different task boards (Microsoft PowerApps to Teams/Planner). This app can be used on any mobile device and on a computer.
- Emails can also be moved into my electronic notebook with a simple click (Microsoft Outlook to Microsoft OneNote). Each client has a section. The ability to place emails in OneNote also allows me to aggregate the text messages, so I email the text message stream from my phone into my email and move it into OneNote.
- Emails from clients can be forwarded into channels in Teams. When this is done, the emails and attachments are saved in a folder automatically on Microsoft SharePoint. I see comments in channel conversations, task progress and comments on tasks directly in my inbox from Teams/Outlook groups.
I did some research, trial and error, and invested time into my setup to get it right for me and my firm. I ended up with Office 365 and Teams because everything is integrated. It also scales up or down nicely and easily. When I shop an app, one of my first questions is, “What does it talk to?” followed by, “How does it integrate within my firm’s (or client’s) ecosphere?”
#3: Stick to it! Make a commitment to your new system and be committed to not only using it, but also to changing or adopting certain behaviors in your workflow. Office 365 was not my first attempt at a system and workflow, but it was the one that stuck. There are so many systems because of our diversity as human beings. Each system or product attracts a certain type of user. You just need to find the one that is right for you and your firm.
Be disciplined with your behaviors. It’s a lot like the bank feeds in QuickBooks® Online. As emails come in, they have a set of rules, learned behavior and categories for transactions. Mine are simple. If it’s a notification, and I have seen it or made it actionable, it is deleted. If it is something for me to read later, I use the snooze function to bring it back if it is important, or I pin it. If it was an email I answered, I file it or send it to the appropriate Team channel.
I dedicate a set time to reading and responding to non-critical newsletters, group feeds and blog posts. If it doesn’t catch you by subject or the first two lines, delete it! I answer emails one to two times daily in the morning and in the evening. Most of the remaining emails is spam. Sometimes, there are emails I missed deleting, moving or sending, but there are ways to program rules into your inbox using Settings>Mail>Rules. I also love the Sweep function that allows me to move all messages from a specified sender to a specified folder. Gmail doesn’t have that.
As to the last bunch of messaging in my inbox … the “unanswered” and “I didn’t make it a task” client emails. Yes, I have those, and you do, too, so why are they sitting in our inboxes?
In my case, I don’t really want them as clients, but follow your gut and decide what’s best for you. Chances are good that you also cringe when you see those same clients calling or texting in.
As with many things in life, there is no right or wrong answer to the inbox conundrum. You have to find the solution that works for you and your firm, and the lifestyle you want to have. Check what you are already using and see what integrations it offers. Look within the settings of your email editor to see what automations can be set up. Shop your mobile device’s app store and see if there is an inbox app that does it better. Make sure the emails are being sent to the right place.
Put technology to work for you, only answer email during working hours and most importantly, finish your setup so nothing slips through the cracks!