Inbox Zero: Read, Restructure, and Remove

Today’s business world thrives on email communication where the modern workplace is constantly connected despite time zones and distance. It’s the innovation that propelled business into the technology era and ensures that most companies never truly close. It is the reason many cannot put down their phones even when they’re technically off the clock.

And I hate it.

I used to love email. The ding of an AOL notification and the promise of a funny joke or another set of get-to-know-you questions that asked everything from the color of your socks at that moment to your favorite cartoon growing up. At one point I even used it to keep in touch with family members and long-lost friends from camp. The entire sensation was exhilarating knowing that someone had sent something specifically to me to read. It all harkens back to the romanticism framed in the opening scenes of You’ve Got Mail:

What will NY152 say today, I wonder. I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You’ve got mail. I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beating of my own heart. I have mail. From you.

But it’s not nearly as romantic anymore. The luster has been lost to the dull grey of spam overload that my filter neglects to catch. Personal emails are missing, now replaced with private messages or shared content on social media platforms. Even long-distance communication that is technically offline is now in the form of text messaging, a must faster alternative to keep in touch across distance – or just across town.

It doesn’t serve the same purpose in my personal life that it once did. Now it acts as the necessary catch-all for online accounts, registrations, email lists or newsletters. More often than not, I use to keep information I couldn’t print at the time such as boarding passes or order information to track shipments. It’s a tool, but in all honesty an unnecessary one.

My job has driven me toward disliking email more because it gives my company a constant way to reach me despite having a set schedule of working hours. Even if I can honestly answer, “No, I didn’t see your email because I didn’t check my inbox last night,” it comes with looks of disappointment or frustration. It’s the expectation that led France to pass a no-email law that requires companies to now set a time after which employees cannot be required to check their email. In other words, they had to pass a law to let people relax after leaving work.

We haven’t reached the point of government intervention yet, perhaps to our own detriment; however, there are ways to simplify the email process, especially if it gives you anxiety or has become a stressor in your life. Reaching an empty inbox is simpler than it sounds, and, once you’re there, it’s a process of three easy steps: reading, restructuring, and removing.

The Stress of Inbox(es)

It’s interesting that something so innocuous as an inbox can cause so much stress. The anxiety comes, not from the emails themselves, but what they represent to us. Responsibility. Social interaction. Unwanted attention. Advertisement. Everyone’s inbox is different, full of plethora of emails, but the anxiety they cause can be very similar for people. An unchecked inbox can come to represent responsibility that we do not want to, bills that we cannot pay, inquiries that we cannot answer, situations that we do not want to handle. It can overwhelm us with what we perceive as the need to respond, whether it be to Facebook notifications, emails from individuals, offers and sales, or even general spam that we never wanted. It can easily become too much to sort, physically and mentally.

Sometimes the stress doesn’t kick in until we’ve lost control of our inboxes. When the number of unread grows to more than twenty or thirty emails, we quickly realize that we’ve gotten behind on keeping up with digital inquiries, but it is nothing compared to when we reach over a thousand unread emails. There is not enough time in the day to look through them all. And the stress continues to build as the number grows, telling us that we’re missing out on something.

Inbox Zero

When my inbox hit 10,000 unread emails, I struggled to make myself check it regularly. Knowing that my email account, which I have had for over four years, was filled with spam advertisements, newsletters I had requested, email lists for which I had signed up, as well as notifications regarding accounts and responsibilities was too much. Instead I began checking my email only a few times a week. I skimmed the set of new emails, read those I needed, and left the others that I didn’t want to handle.

As the number grew, I discovered minimalism and eventually read about the concept of inbox zero, deleting unnecessary emails, sorting emails that must be kept into a more organized fashion, and creating an inbox that is always at zero at the start of each day. The idea is that by having an organizational system in place and tackling new emails each day, you keep not only your emails at bay but the stress that it creates as well.

It’s a simple concept that has exploded in popularity across social media platforms, including LinkedIn, as a new professional goal. When it comes to my work email, however, I haven’t attempted to get close to zero emails; that’s going to take a little more time. When it came to my personal emails, though, I did the simplest thing possible – I archived or deleted everything.

Letting Everything Go

Literally, I archived the maximum amount of data Yahoo would let me archive without even looking through the emails. I did this for one reason: simplification. I am looking for ways to simplify my stress and life in the best ways possible, and spending several hours going through ten thousand emails looking for that one email I might need is not a relaxing tactic. My thought process also lent the logic that, if I couldn’t recall the email off the top of my head, I probably had a very slim chance of needing it again.

I do know I have emails I might need to reference in the future – conversations about insurance policies, emails with usernames or passwords, emails with reference numbers or contact information. Pick any reason I might have given out my email address and we can come up with a reason I might need to keep an email. But I don’t need these emails regularly. In fact, I rarely need them. I would venture as far as to say that I don’t need 99.5% of the emails in those ten thousand emails – they’re just taking up space. And letting them all go together was the easiest solution.

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Archiving seemed like the simplest answer. Yahoo is storing those emails for me and has removed them from my inbox so I don’t see them. But they are still there in the event that I do have that one instance pop up where I need to find an email to reference. Keeping items archived, though, is not a good practice for personal emails in this scenario. I have no need for 9,950 emails being archived that I will never read. My solution: I’ll leave them archived for the next year and pull any emails that I need before next January. I’ll sort those into active folders and delete any leftover emails at the start of next year.

In the meantime, I have started sorting my emails as they come in, checking my account once a day and reading everything at once. This method allows me to focus on what I’m reading, whether it’s a blog post, an update, or an offer, and I can process the information at one time. This way nothing is overlooked or left for later. After I’m finished reading them, I sort them into appropriate folders or delete them.

This allows me to leave my inbox back at zero – no worries, no emails that can ramp up my anxiety, no leftovers to handle later. Addressing everything at once and sorting it in a way that makes referencing emails later is a simple answer, but it works. I’ve only been keeping my personal email this way for a week now, but it has made checking my email simpler and less stressful.

Ways to Accomplish Zero

For some people, reaching zero in an inbox brings about the same anxiety that comes with thoughts of letting go of possessions. That emotional or sentimental attachment to a conversation with an old friend. The what-if thoughts of possibly needing it in the future. The thought that it’s justifiable if there is space to store it – and digitally we can always get more space. And that anxiety of letting go to the attachment and the what-if scenarios is exactly what inbox zero is all about. Cutting loose of that mindset.

Deleting existing emails might work for some – the same personalities that can clean out a room and donate 75% of their items in a single day without blinking – but it won’t work for everyone. It didn’t work for me. I archived my emails because I wanted that second chance to retrieve information if I needed it. But that also allowed me an organized system to rid myself of those same emails at a later date. It’s like a storage unit, moving boxed up possessions to a storage locker just in case I decide I need it later.

Archiving only works, however, if you are disciplined enough or have someone to keep you accountable to delete those emails at a later date. Otherwise, your archive folder simply becomes a replacement for your inbox folder. Whatever your solution, you have to ensure that it works for you and reaches your goal of eventually having no emails in your inbox at the end of the day and the rest of your emails well sorted.

One Email at a Time – Some personalities will not want to let go of emails all at once. It might be overwhelming, much like emptying out a room in a single day. If you are this sort of individual, it might be easier for you to sort your emails a little at a time. This is only conceivable if you either already have a low number of emails in your inbox, maybe a few hundred at most, or if you receive only a handful of emails a day so that you can delete many more emails every day than the number of new emails you receive.

Archiving Your Inbox – Like I described above, this accomplishes inbox zero immediately but offers that reference opportunity in the event that you need an email you would have otherwise deleted. However, this should only be done if you can stick with a future deletion date. In that same vein, you might end up deleting a needed email in the long run – that Murphy’s Law scenario where you need an email only the day after you’ve deleted your archive permanently – but that is why you set a goal to allow yourself to retrieve them. And then stick with it! Moving the deletion date only creates excuses and allows you to delay emptying your inbox altogether.

Deleting Everything – If you are bold personality, one who dives right into an idea, deleting might be the right game for you. Selecting that “All” checkbox and hitting the trash icon. I only recommend this step for the brave of heart. Because you will need one of those emails the next day. I guarantee it.

Sorting – Once you have fewer emails in your inbox or as you are going through them, create a sorting system that works for you and your content. Folders are the simplest method, but be sure to label them appropriately for easier reference. Examples of common folders for inbox organization include:

– Travel – Reservations, boarding passes, and the like for easier access when on the go
– Accounts/Registrations – Usernames and passwords for when you are locked out
– Dependents/Family Members – Emails pertaining to specific individuals
– Offers – Coupons or offers for the week that you want to keep and revisit
– Banking – Banking information or conversation regarding finances

These are just a few examples; your set of folders will look unique and portray a better picture of how your email functions in your life. The goal should be to organize your emails in a way that they are easy to find if you are in an emergency. The simpler, the better.

Assessing What To Keep Receiving – As you read or delete emails, consider what you enjoy reading, what you automatically delete without reading, what you consider saving for later. Ask yourself if you want to continue to subscribe to these emails, if you can opt out of these types of emails, if you want to create a folder for them, or if you want to read them at that time and then delete. This will allow you to clean out and minimize the emails that you do receive as you go through the process to simplify.

Read, Restructure, and Remove

The steps to keeping an inbox zero are simple, but you must develop the habit of doing them regularly. Each time you access your inbox, it is significant that you give yourself time to follow the steps so that can focus on the task, take in the content, and follow through with your goal to keep your email simple and less stressful. The process is simple: Read, restructure, and remove.

Read – read each email and participate in that task. Rather than reading them on the go, give your attention to the email. If it’s a newsletter, read it rather than skimming it. If it is an update on a financial account, work through it rather than filing it without previewing it. If you find yourself skipping emails or deleting items automatically, remember that you need to assess your subscription to emails. Perhaps that is a sort of email that you should not continue to receive, especially if it’s not providing a function in your life.

Restructure – Once you’ve read all of your emails, restructure your inbox by sorting those you want to keep into appropriate folders. If you are torn about where to sort a particular item, ask yourself if it deserves its own folder. If not, it might need to be deleted.

Remove – If any emails are left after restructuring your inbox, remove them from the inbox altogether.

It’s a simple, three-step process, but it’s the getting there that is the most difficult. If you are considering implementing an inbox zero plan with your email, I recommend assessing which method of reaching zero works best for you first. Once you’ve made that step and you reach zero, then you can worry about maintaining your inbox. Again, this is a small way to simplify your life, but it is one that can truly simplify a daily task for many of us.

And if you figure out the best way to do it in Outlook, let me know – I’ll give my work email a go as well!

Have you accomplish inbox zero? What was the most difficult aspect? How do you sort your emails?

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