An empty inbox. It sounds like a dream too good to ever be true. With the sheer volume of emails that some people receive plus meetings, social media notifications, relationships, phone calls, and other demands on our time, an empty inbox can appear as insurmountable as climbing Mt Everest. It’s been done though, so why not this? Here’s a quick summary of how I’ve consistently maintained an empty inbox throughout 2017, and seen my productivity soar.
I run my life from the “Unread Mail” folder on my iPhone. It’s where all my email accounts converge and where the majority of new tasks, notifications, and invitations come to me. Using this folder instead of multiple inboxes means two things. First, I’m forced to deal with every email I open, as once I close it and my mail client marks it as read, it’s gone from my field of vision. So if I haven’t dealt with it, it’s out of sight and probably already out of my mind. Second, this folder view means I’m freed to not be distracted by the emails of yesterday. The long list of days and weeks worth of already read emails in my Inbox would fill my screen and clutter my thoughts.
So how does this work? Every time I open an email from this folder I need to ask what it is. Do I have the knowledge on hand to reply to this email immediately? If yes, do it. Right now. If not, does it contain something I need to do? Then I close it, and create a task in Todoist (more on that below). Is it an invitation or an appointment that I need to remember to go to? Then I’ll create an entry in my calendar with everything I need to know (I often copy-and-paste the email into the calendar entry for reference), then it’s gone. If my response isn’t either of these, then is it a piece of information I need to keep; a file, a document, an invoice, a snippet of important information? It goes into Evernote, saved in the appropriate Notebook Stack. By categorising all my incoming emails in this manner, every piece of mail that enters my Unread Mail folder is identified, dealt with accordingly, then made to disappear.
Anyone who knows me will attest to the reality that remembering isn’t my strongest suit. I have a job where my customer appointments are scheduled for me, and so while at work I live by my calendar. Team managers, personnel schedulers, and peers all have visibility of my day and can slot in appointments, leaving me to fill in the gaps.
My wife and I also have a shared calendar (via Google) which syncs across our iPhones. This way we always know when the other will be taking kids to the doctor or be home late, plus be ready for that wedding/baby shower/BBQ on the weekend. When an email arrives that means I/we have to be somewhere sometime, it goes straight into the calendar, and syncs everywhere it needs to, then it’s gone.
This is where I keep my running To Do list. I’ve found the best way to keep things simple here is to keep each task to a short, single line description, beginning with the verb it requires. For example “PAY: Gas bill”, or “RETURN: Tools to Nathan”. The verb gives me a one-word overview of what kind of task it is before I see specifics.
I also love that when I add (for example) “today”, “next Wednesday”, or “Every second Thursday” to the end of a task, Todoist works its magic. When I hit save, Todoist strips off the day/date words from the end of the line, and simply causes the task to appear in my TODAY list, to be dealt with on the day(s) I specified. Does an email require me to complete a certain action? Todoist.
Whether it’s an invoice, the next roster for the church ministry I serve in, a shopping list, or just something I want to read later, if it’s not a task and not a calendar appointment, chances are this is where it goes. Evernote holds all my files and information. It has great document capture, web and email clipping, a powerful search tool, and an intelligent photo capture tool for small things that I lose easily like receipts and invoices. The other power of Evernote is found in the use of folders. I currently have top-level folders for Work, Family, Personal, Church, and Study. Has an email come to me with a document I need to proofread? A receipt from an online purchase? Save it to Evernote, then adiós!
So there you have it. There’s a lot more to how each of these systems work, and how to get the most out of the even more intricate and powerful ecosystem they form when used together. But through the simple activity of sorting incoming emails into tasks, appointments, and information, I’ve not only gone to bed at night with zero emails in my inbox, but I’ve got more done, slept better knowing everything is accounted for and no task or appointment will be forgotten, and seen my productivity soar.
Want to know more? Get in touch with me through the email button on the website. I’ll respond the same day.