4 - Inbox Zero in Practice: Seven practical hints to boost your productivity game

January 30, 2020


Inbox Zero in Practice: I got some private messages after my post on On Getting Things Done, especially about the mentioned inbox zero aspect. So it is my pleasure to share some of the answers I gave in response. The described hints are part of some of my leadership trainings (in the outer game part) and are all battle-proven in practice ;-).


First, yes, it is a philosophical question if we aim at boosting our impact with an empty, almost empty, full or extremely full inbox. And for what we boost our impact, too. To work more? To work smarter? To work smarter while living smarter, too? Different paths lead to Rome. It's up to us and depends on our working style and performance type. In any case, in my opinion it is worth a thought if and how to optimize and streamline your mail process.


Second, sure, it is my pleasure to share some more hints on practical implementation.

If you target to change a habit like your e-mail-handling it all starts with your focus: Why do you wanna change your status quo? What do you expect? And why again? So please raise your awareness and a "sense of urgency" for yourself first. In this case it could be to save time, to sharpen the focus and to raise effectiveness and efficiency in the daily business game. Why again? To have more time and energy free for your job or business, for special projects, for your partner, for sport or hobbies, or for other areas of your personal interest.


Then it is about the right tools: How do you collect and process your e-mails? Do you have different accounts? Software? Apps? Why? What? How? Here it could be your first step to integrate your accounts into one app or program like Outlook or a mobile app to have just one input channel which simplifies the selection and automation later in the process. Do not log into five accounts every day, bundle it and build a "single point of contact" with mails.

Now it is about practical hints that you ideally transform to your personal habits which you actually apply and sustain daily. This is the biggest and also most productive challenge ;-).


Here are some examples:


1 Reason Why: Know what role mails play in effective communication in your field. Raise your awareness that the phone and especially live (!) interactions still work best to deliver messages, to build rapport with stakeholders and to get things done in most of the jobs. In practice schedule a time-boxed block when you center your attention to your mails for a limited amount of time. For example: Twice a day for 30 to 60 minutes at 11am and 5pm. Please be none of those managers that "manage by mail". Be an effective and efficient professional who "leads by collaboration, impact and example". The journey is worth it.


2 System: Use mail files like "contexts", "projects" and "actions" to sort mails. Contexts are linked to topics that are relevant and important for your general focus areas, like in my case I have triple package of "Done, Doing, To Do" (for the actions) and topic-related contexts like "Leadership", "Customers", "Team", "Management", "Training", "Ideas", "Finance", "HR", "Knowledge", "Travel" and more, which reflect my business life priorities. Projects on the other hand have a start and end date, and ideally display the vital few "soups" you cook right now with the right temperature, right ingredients and right resources at hand. In my case I sort my client projects into my project files and collect the related mails there, like "Prep A", "Prep B", "Prep C", ... with "Prep" standing for project preparation/management. Another option for contexts is: "Reply", "Take Action", "Keep", "Wait For" and "Archive".


3 Rules: Apply rules and filters. Boldly. Ask yourself what you consider important and urgent. Make this a decision habit (adapted from president Eisenhower). Connect this question with topics, senders, contexts, requests, newsletters, info mails and other aspects of mails you receive. Rules and filters help you to not just collect mail input, but to clarify what you need in your focus of attention, what to keep stored for later and what to systematically delete. Yes, the last one feels good in action, and saves you a lot of time, energy and focus for the real important stuff to getting it done. I experiment with filters and rules, and had times when I even sorted away all CC mails by definition. Try out what works best for you. In my case I made good experiences with sorting out newsletter, standard info mails and "spam" (feel free to define it). And to automatically transfer context and project mails to my file system (which I then regularly supervise and manage to stay in best big picture). Define priority rules and filters, so you only get direct sight of mails from your boss, direct reports, key accounts, key clients and key stakeholders. Define clever intervals to check other input not daily, but for example every three days or weekly. Rules and filters depend strongly on your job setting, so scan your area first and analyze the scenario before you set your rules.


4 Proactivity: Do not touch e-mails (and paper mails) twice while processing. Remember we already filtered, so what comes in and you can handle it within five minutes, do it. Some say "two minutes" and others keep it "flexible". I personally made good experiences with the 5-minute-rule. What you do not get done within five minutes, you can schedule and set a marker on your To-Do-List of the day to process it later, unless it is important AND urgent. Make proactivity a habit. If you get things instantly done or at least set the first steps into the right direction you actively avoid procrastination which affects your impact and hormons in a healthy way. Get loose ends out of your head with a system (see 2 and 3) and with action. I adapted the additional technique to decide within the first seven "breaths".


5 Systematic Trash: Dare to delete. Yes. Use the "delete" button. Wisely but consequently. I know a Senior Manager who took this by word and deleted boldly without checking the importance and urgency first. His attitude was that "they" will write again if it was something he should care for or bother with. Well, this did not work out in the long term. Smarter is to systematically clean up your "system" on a regular basis on the one hand, and to simply and fearlessly delete the mails which are not important and not urgent, and where your intuition tells you based on some basic intelligence that it's right to erase this mail ;-).


6 Dare To Delegate: If something is not important for your direct priorities right now but urgent and maybe important for someone else or the overall organisation, then "delegate" and transfer the mail to the person who might handle it best or is really in charge. This is one way. I personally prefer delegation in person (live) or at least verbally (on the phone) as this is more personal and also definitely of more impact. We become a digital "mailing society". Be bold and take the opportunity to (also) play your game differently and still consciously live on the floor or with your people to boost impact AND creativity (= value). Here it is key you don't give in to a mail ping pong and avoid motion waste by exchanging quantities of mails. Often it is already enough to use the mail title, for example: "Hi John. Here is some relevant input on your project X. (EOM)" with EOM as "End of Message". Keep it simple.


7 Habits of Effective People: I kindly invite you to (re-)invent your mail handling habits if you have no regular zero inbox yet. Or define your own range if "10 mails in the inbox" are fine for you, or actually reflect your ten prio actions. And keep reinventing those habits from time to time with a smile based on experiments and tests in practice where you figure out what works best for you. Creating and changing habits means to do things in the new or adapted way in a disciplined manner (for example daily for an hour) over a period of time (like six or eight weeks) to really implement and sustain new effective behavior. Key for success and impact are daily/weekly application of your habits and review of the system.


Be are pro and lead your focus, sharpen your tools and (re-)invent your habits. Constantly.

Special thanks to my friend and mentor Meik Bödeker for top inspiration on the topic :-).


Cheers and a successful week!



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