Strategy & Marketing

Is It Really Possible to Achieve Inbox Zero?

Like El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, the dream of catching up on your emails, and achieving an empty inbox sits out there like an unrealized myth. Sure there are plenty of websites that tell you how to reach “Inbox Zero,” but if you’re like me, you still walk away from the computer every night unable to process every email. So the question continues: Is it possible to deal with every email, every day?

If you’re a leader and influencer, probably not. Sure, there was a time when I could achieve inbox zero, and the feeling was fantastic. Processing that last email felt so good! But that was a long time ago, and today I receive hundreds of unsolicited emails, mostly from well meaning people wanting me to give them career advice, watch a video, use me as a reference, ask my opinion, help them raise money for a project, share something on social media, and more.

But the fact is, email has made us lazy.  Instead of one decisive phone call, we shuffle 6 emails back and forth working out meeting dates or deadlines. Instead of hitting delete, we feel obligated to forward messages we shouldn’t. And don’t get me started on people who hit “reply all.” The result fills our inbox with time wasters.  So I haven’t hit inbox zero in years. But you can still stay on top of your email, and here’s how I do it:

1) Unsubscribe from everything you can possibly do without.   Your first step is to cut down the fat. Sure, some unsubscribe links target you as a real person for spammers, but today (especially if you’re using a good spam filter) most unsubscribe links are legit. Use them. It will make a tremendous difference.

2) Use boilerplate replies.   Take an afternoon and write helpful responses to the most common email requests you receive. Park the document where you can have easy access, and use it. If anything, simply customize the first line. Other than that, create templates you can use over and over. Believe me, a detailed, helpful template you use again and again is far better than something lame you whip up on the spot.

3) Get an assistant.   If you’re a leader or influencer you probably already have one, so bring him or her into your email loop. For instance, once I accept a speaking engagement, I have someone in my office take over the logistics of the event. I’ve also given her a copy of my boilerplate responses to help me with email inquiries. I have her deal with people who respond to me through our website. A great assistant can take a huge load off your shoulders, and if you don’t have one, at least find an intern.

4) Stop feeling badly about not responding.   The truth is, in this day and age you can’t respond to everyone. I had one staff member tell me that if I responded to everyone that emails me, I wouldn’t have time to actually lead our company or do what God’s called me to do. It’s a point worth thinking about. Sure – if it’s your boss, co-worker, or someone you know well, then obviously respond. But remember this: If it’s unsolicited – particularly from someone you don’t know – there’s no rule that you have to respond. And that’s OK.

5) Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize.   Some emails matter a lot, others matter a little, and still others don’t matter at all. Respond in that order. The ones that don’t matter, probably aren’t worth responding to at all.

6) Finally, as I’ve said again and again:   If you spend all day answering email, you’re  responding to OTHER people’s priorities. You have a career, a dream and a calling. Which is more important? Realizing your dream, or spending hours every day responding to someone else’s dream? It’s up to you.

By the way, here’s a good checklist from my friend Seth Godin to consider before you hit “send” on that next email.

Let’s get over inbox zero and put email in the right context. That’s when you’ll actually start accomplishing something wonderful with your life.

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  1. Nice post Phil! I still like to try for inbox zero, but that doesn’t mean I’ve replied to everything. It just means I’ve acted in some way: deleted, delegated, filed for reference, etc. I also try to not be in my inbox all day, alleviating the urge to “respond to other people’s priorities.” Sometimes, with this method others that have replied-all have already bounced 15 emails in the conversation, resolving the issue or task.

  2. The concept of “Zero” is really more of a myth, than reality. I regularly get thousands of e-mails a week, and yes, I do monitor every single one. As an Executive, you must learn to quickly assess the basis of a message and be able to compartmentalize the content and move on. Each message will receive the attention it deserves, but you also learn soon that many are just keeping you in the loop and don’t need a long response or action. It’s just another example of multi-tasking that any organizational leader must optimize and be prepared to handle. Yes, some can’t do it, but in most cases this is just one area of balls in the air that you have to stay on top of and not ignore for long. Getting behind on messages is what can hurt you more than anything. Stay on top of them and it becomes just a part of the process. An Assistant helps, but truly you can handle thousands of messages if you deal with them regularly and not wait for them to all pile up. Never have I spent a day just answering e-mails, but I never have allowed them to just sit and pile up either.

  3. I received this note from Cassie Byram after reading the post: “I thought I would spend some time responding to your priorities today Phil! Tee Hee 🙂 Like you, I haven’t reached inbox zero in years! As an Executive Creative Director helping to run a company, then add to that, running a household, taking care of aging parents, being involved at church, all while continuing my career as a singer/songwriter, I find it hard to believe I will ever have an empty inbox again! Having said that, I rejoice in all of my positions and activities and especially, the real relationships that keep the inbox and my life full. Better to be overwhelmed and perhaps a bit frantic, than underwhelmed and most certainly bored! Thanks for all of your great advice Phil!”

  4. I think zero inbox is totally possible until the next wave hits. I try to use a once touch system with multiple inboxes. It either gets respond to – go into TO DO (do now), SOMEDAY (waiting for more info but ball is in my court), HOLD (ball is in their court but need to followup), REFERENCE (something I know will need later on). Then after everything is weeded though the inbox gets “Paused” (via Inbox Pause) until a later time that I set when I want to attend to another batch of emails. So rather than checking email all day and focusing and refocusing – I take control of my emails by setting set time email comes in that works with my schedule.

  5. Inbox zero….what a lofty thought! No, I haven’t reached this state and I wonder if I ever will. I think I have steps 4-6 covered, but I can do better with 1 & 2 and haven’t reached the need for #3 yet. This post has definitely inspired me to utilize the suggestions listed to get a step closer, though. Thanks, Phil!

  6. Someone sent me an email on March 14th directing me to this blog post . . . they were curious for my thoughts about it.

    It’s sort of funny . . . it’s April 28th now and I’m cleaning out my inbox. Since March 14th I’ve traveled internationally and taken in a week-long conference and launched some initiatives for our agency and for some of our ministry partners.

    For me, I try to stay aware of what’s most important in email, not live in it, stay on my priorities, and clean it out once a quarter or so. Usually, I’m largely aware of what’s in it, but don’t empty it like Inbox Zero wants me to.

    As I process it today, I’m aiming to respond to stuff I can answer in 30 seconds or less, respond with “Let’s talk” wherever I can, and drop the rest into a “NEXT” folder that I’ll aim to SCHEDULE to deal with next week.

    The biggest problem I do battle with is the battle in my head of letting folks down (people-pleaser tendency) or the sense that I have too many open loops.

    I’ve lived Inbox Zero to varying degrees in my life, but do agree: I don’t think it’s perfectly possible for a lot of leaders.

    Let’s live out of priority, not out of the inbox.

    Good job, Phil. I think I’ll send you an email now.

    1. The perfect illustration of my point. “Live out of priority – not out of the inbox.”
      Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for elevating the conversation!

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