My Inbox Sparks Joy; Does Yours?
As the Marie Kondo craze enters a second wave, more and more people have begun applying minimalist principles to the physical parts of their lives — but not necessarily to their digital habits.
But when it comes to your professional life, the dividends you’ll reap over time from email organization are just as important for cultivating joy.
So… what is Inbox Zero?
This New Year I posted this picture of my Habit Tracker on Instagram, and many of the items on the list generated questions from friends — but most focused on two little words: Inbox Zero.
I cross it out at the end of the day if both my inboxes (personal and professional) are either empty or at what I consider a complete stopping point (more on that later).
For many people that might seem impossible — and trust me, I hear you. If you’d told me 5 years ago I would go to sleep with an empty inbox every night, I would have laughed in your face.
That’s because even though I’ve been a minimalist on the physical side of things for many years, I never thought about applying those principles to my professional life until last year.
And it showed.
I was always saying “oh shoot I’m sorry I forgot to write back…” or the more familiar “sorry for my delayed response…” I always felt like I was treading water, never on top let alone ahead of my workload.
Long story short: I used to be a mess. So if I can do it, you can do it.
For those unfamiliar with minimalism, here’s the best way I can describe it: Have you ever noticed how much time you save getting ready for work when you’re on a business trip? Your normal morning routine is cut in half because you’re not searching for an outfit, picking through a drawer of products to use — you’ve cultivated a small suitcase full of exactly what you need, you use those things, and voila you’re done in no time.
Imagine living every day like that — totally streamlined.
And though I know it might seem like only one tool in your professional toolkit, your inbox is the center of everything. It’s your most important to do list. Each one is an item to cross off the list — and you get to decide how to prioritize them.
Ready? Set… a timer.
If you’re starting off with an overflowing inbox, set a 30-minute timer and tackle it aggressively as if you’re running a race — see how much you can do in that set time. Start by deleting anything obviously trashable (promotions you don’t need, Eventbrite reminders for things in the past) and after you’ve weeded out the easy things, begin selecting emails you are “done” with into a new folder: DONE.
Mine is in all caps because tbh it feels good to drop things into it. This is the one and only folder I have. I used to segment items into folders labeled Uber receipts, tax documents, events, etc. but now that we have search features to help us segment out email types, why does it matter what folder your emails are in? Stop wasting time filing things into different folders (especially if you avoid doing it and let items pile up) and just push EVERYTHING into your done folder. DONE.
What goes in the DONE folder? Orders you’ve placed, messages you’ve responded to (if the ball is in their court, get it out of your inbox), just about everything. The only things you don’t stick in that folder are emails you need to read and reply to.
During this 30 minutes, ALL you are doing is filing things into your done folder and deleting obvious trash; you are not replying to ANY emails or unsubscribing from ANY lists no matter how tempting.
After 30 minutes is up, set another 30 minute timer and go do something else — scroll through Twitter, walk your dog, get some coffee — I don’t care what you do, just stop looking at your inbox. When the timer goes off… you guessed it: set it again and get back to your inbox.
Repeat until you’re at what I call a “complete stopping point.”
This is where you’ve filed every single email away and the ONLY emails sitting in your inbox need a response or another action.
Then.. get to it! Reply to each email briefly and professionally and immediately file it until, at the end of your workday, you’re left with an empty or nearly empty inbox.
Okay so it’s not actually at ZERO then, is it, Lyndsey?
Not always. If an email contains resources I need to complete a project the following day (like an attachment), it would make no sense to file it.
If an email requires a response but is contingent upon information I’m waiting for from another person, it stays in my inbox until I have that. Important note: I will still respond to that person saying something like “Hey Michael, my team is looking into what happened to that video file — I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back” both to keep them informed and to let them know I have heard them and am working on a solution. I can then choose to either file that email and add the item to my physical to do list or leave it in my inbox as a reminder to stay on top of it.
Either way, my inbox never has more than 5 emails when I’m at a “complete stopping point.”
Okay I did that… now what?
You’ve done the hard part — now comes the extremely easy part: Keep doing it every single day for the rest of your professional life.
Calm down it’s not that bad. Once this becomes a habit (which should take about a month) it will become as much a part of your routine as brushing your teeth.
Here’s the bottom line: Every time you open an email you should be either immediately responding to and filing it or unsubscribing from a list and/or deleting it. Period.
Junk Mail & Notifications
The first time you are tackling the inbox, don’t waste time going through and unsubscribing from emails — day one is ONLY about getting to that first beautiful inbox zero — every day after that is about keeping it that way. The morning after your glorious purge you will open your inbox and suddenly see dozens of new emails — many of them from lists you don’t want to be on — but don’t despair. Now is the time to go in and scroll to the very bottom of the emails and unsubscribe. Do this every time you get a new email from a retailer or campaign you’re not interested in. Do you get notifications for social platforms like Twitter and Facebook? Instead of repeatedly deleting them, go into your settings on the social platforms and turn them off.
Will this actually change my professional life?
I don’t make big promises or prescribe specific behavior very often (to each their own!) but on this I absolutely do: I promise if you apply these principles to your professional life now, you will see the benefits grow year after year in so many ways. Your colleagues will always know where you stand on projects, you’ll have more time to thoughtfully reply to messages, you’ll start to be more organized and streamlined in other aspects of your work, you won’t miss important messages or forget to reply to them for days or weeks — and that means never, ever having to say “sorry for the delayed response” again.