Emptying Your Inbox

Fire extinguisher beside office tray containing burning paperOne of my favorite office tricks is organizing my e-mail so that my inbox is empty. Productivity nerds sometimes call this tactic Inbox Zero, and it’s a rule by which I live my business life. I know that PR pros can be inundated with e-mail, perhaps more than most, and I truly believe everyone can tame their inbox.

How do you even begin? Let’s go on a magical productive journey.

First you need personal rules. Every e-mail that lands in your inbox should go through a process. Look at it; read the entire thing to the end. The worst possible waste of time is replying with a question that would be answered if you just read the whole e-mail. Once you figure out what the heck the e-mail is about, decide what needs to be done: archive, answer or forward, or hold for more information.

Your primary objective is to archive the message as soon as possible. If it can be dealt with in under 10 minutes, I usually do it. That time may vary for you. By the end of the day, the main inbox should be at zero.

If you work at an agency, you should organize your e-mails by client or project. Keep your folders (or ‘Labels,’ if you’re using a Gmail system), clearly labeled. Within the folders, keep everything in some kind of order; I prefer chronological. If you work in-house, the same system can be applied by project or even month. So according to Inbox Zero, you don’t delete all your e-mails. You just organize them so you know how to get to them, and you have a clean slate to shoot for while working.

I like this method because it serves as a de facto To Do list. Anything that’s sitting in my inbox is something that needs attention. And it feels good to have it empty. It feels like all my correspondence is under control. It may sound crazy, and I know a lot of pros cringe at the idea of having an empty inbox, but if the idea of e-mail discipline sounds appealing, I suggest you give it a try.

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  • An overwhelming inbox is, in my opinion, one of the most crippling aspects of life as a PR professional. We recieve so much e-mail on a daily basis that we turn into e-mail-sending machines to dig ourselves out from under the pile, which causes us to lose sight of the bigger deliverables. It's a vicious cycle.

  • KDMisevich

    I thought I was weird for keeping my inbox to only a few emails. I'm not at the zero mark, but I rarely go above 10 items in my inbox. Each month I create a pdf of my entire mailbox and then clean out each of my mailbox folders. If I didn't have detailed folders/labels setup that pdf would be a nightmare to sort through.

    This post has inspired me to organize even further.

  • I started doing this a couple months ago, and it works like a dream! My stress level when looking at my inbox has definitely decreased.

  • hollydonato

    What do you do when there's only one article in an e-newsletter (such as PRSA's) that you want to keep? I have a folder full of newsletters, but want to whittle them to a handful of articles, classified by topic. But it's a potpourri in each issue. Also, is there an alternative to just bookmarking good sites? My list is getting too long to be organized.

  • hollydonato

    What if you want to save only one article in an e-newsletter (like PRSA's)? How to extract and save by topic, rather than a whole archive of periodicals? Also, how do you organize favorite websites, other than a long, long list of bookmarks?

  • I do this every day as much as I possibly can. It's a great tactic and I find that it makes time management much easier. I don't feel that I have projects looming over my head when I don't. A place for everything; everything in its place.

    I keep emails sorted first by year, then by the program, then conference (I work with a lot of events, so this makes sense to me). I also have a folder for the monthly newsletter, which gets emptied of potential content after each newsletter goes out. I also keep a file of material for quick reference if there's something I know I'll go back to time after time.

    I know you mentioned gmail above and, at least for me, keeping my Outlook email at work organized and at Inbox Zero is much easier to do than with my personal gmail – mostly due to the fact that even once you've read and labeled an email, it remains in your inbox. Do you know of any tricks to solve that problem? I love almost everything about gmail, with the one exception being that I wish it had folders.

  • Whoa, lots of questions. Let me try to tackle them.

    If I'm saving an article in an e-newsletter that doesn't have a hotlink, then I would make a folder or label dedicated to articles or to the topics of those articles. (Tips, News, etc.) Newsletters that don't have anything save-worthy, I would delete after reading.

    Organizing favorite web sites is tricky if you don't want to keep a growing list of bookmarks (either on Del.ici.ous, Yahoo Live Bookmarks, or Google Bookmarks) but I wouldn't recommend keeping your bookmarks in your e-mail. For me, Firefox's smart recognition auto-fill always saves the day. It auto-saves all my traffic and if I don't clear my cache, it will help me figure out where I need to go.

    If you're saving favorite web sites that you visit often, you should also look into using an RSS feed reader (like Google Reader) to keep track of everything. It also allows organizing of “bookmarks” through labels, tags, and folders. And it helps scan your favs quicker.

    I hope this was helpful, Holly!

  • Glad to hear it!

  • Hooray! I have not heard of that PDF tactic. Pretty nifty.

  • It is. Believe me, nothing is worse than opening your inbox on Monday morning to find 800 e-mails. But when you have a process, I think it helps a lot.

  • Yeah, my personal e-mail is MOS DEF not following the Inbox 0 model. Welp, at least my business side of things is well-kept.

  • I'm also an Inbox Zero fanatic (meanwhile, my husband has 5000+ in his inbox). My favorite tricks and skimming and setting aside time to deal with the inbox. I skim messages on my BlackBerry before I get out of bed and delete ones I can't. Blogs and other subscribed emails go into a folder to read later. I scan and figure out what I need to deal with immediately (usually nothing), then get on with my word. I schedule some time at lunch and in early evening to tackle and deal with as many as possible, but the majority of the cleaning takes place late at night. And I aim for ten messages or less. I'm also a fan of bookmarking services for any articles or news items you want to read later. A clean inbox keeps me sane and organized!

  • hollydonato

    Thanks for lots of good tools/methods to explore. I have to take a day off for my growing list! Useful–thanks again.

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