How I Got to Inbox Zero and Have Maintained It For More Than One Month

inbox_zeroMy email inbox is currently at 0.  Actually, no, that’s not right.  My email inboxes are currently at 0.

You see, I have three different inboxes configured within my Apple Mail – my main Gemba Academy inbox, my personal Gmail inbox, and an inbox I use for all of my kids various activities (sports, etc.).

All of them are at 0… which, to be honest, is incredible since I have long struggled with my email.

Like many of you I’m sure, I get A LOT of email each day.  I don’t know exactly how many, nor do I care to count and average them… let’s just say it’s a lot!

So, how did I do it?  Are there secret apps?  Did I read a special book?

Well, my goal with this article to explore exactly what I’ve done in hopes of helping me gain clarity on what’s worked and what hasn’t… and, hopefully, help anyone that wants to get to inbox zero (and isn’t there already) make it happen!

Also, in true lean style, I plan to share the problems I was facing and how I attempted to counter them.

Problem 1: Using My Inbox as a To Do List

First, I used to use my inbox as a to do list.  In other words, if I got an email I needed to act on but didn’t have time I’d leave it in my inbox until I could act on it.

Sound familiar?  I’m guessing many of you can relate.

This was a slippery slope and, soon, I’d have dozens of emails piled up.

Countermeasure 1: Parking Lot Folder

The first countermeasure I did was to create a parking lot folder.  This folder is where I place emails that need to be acted on but couldn’t be acted on immediately for whatever reason.

Each day at 3:00 PM I look in this folder and attempt to clear out as many of them as possible.  If I don’t clear it out the email stays in the folder.  Once I do complete the action I delete the email.

I have actually created a recurring event in my calendar to remind me to visit the folder each day at 3:00 PM.

I also have a kanban white board hanging next to my desk that allows me to document important actions on post it notes making the action more visible.

Countermeasure 2: Take Action

The second, and most important, countermeasure I took was to simply take immediate action on as many emails as possible.

In some cases this means doing it myself.  In other cases it might mean forwarding the email to one of my incredible Gemba Academy team members.

But, whenever possible, once action is taken I delete the email from my inbox.

Problem 2: I Struggled to Delete Emails

I’m not sure what my problem is with deleting emails… but it scares me.  I mean what if I need an email 2 months from now and don’t have it?

Countermeasure 1: 3 Questions

The first countermeasure I took to battle this email deletion fear was to silently ask myself the following question:

If I needed this email in the future and couldn’t find it…

  1. Would my family be in danger or at risk?
  2. Would Gemba Academy customers be at risk?
  3. Would Gemba Academy’s business be at risk?

This may sound simplistic… but these three questions have radically changed the way I look at emails.

Now, full disclosure… since I use Gmail for my personal emails I don’t really ever delete those emails.  Instead I archive them.  But, in the end, they aren’t in my inbox which is my goal!

Countermeasure 2: File Emails as Needed

Now, if there are really important emails that need to be saved I do have folders created.  My goal is to review each folder once a month to do a little 5S and re-ask the 3 questions to see if they can be deleted.

Problem 3: I Got Too Many Emails

Next, like most folks I simply get a lot of unnecessary email.  And by unnecessary I mean it really adds no value to me, my family, or business.

Countermeasure 1: Unsubscribe

The first thing I did to counter this issue was to unsubscribe from newsletters I don’t find value in.

Now, to be sure, I am still subscribed to several newsletters that I find value in.  So, if you’re a Gemba Academy newsletter subscriber don’t get any crazy ideas about unsubscribing!  Ha!

Countermeasure 2: Asked to Only Be Copied on Critical Emails

Next, I have done my best to respectfully request people only email me when they really need me to know about something or take action on something.

This is a big change for me since, in the past, I’ll admit I was a bit of a control freak and I wanted to know about everything going on at Gemba Academy as well as anything related to things like my kids soccer teams or son’s Jiu-Jitsu team!

Countermeasure 3: Email Rules

I also get a lot of emails from things like Facebook or LinkedIn comments or when potential Gemba Academy customers sign up for a free preview account.

Since the subject line is always the same I have folders created that keep these emails from landing in my inbox.

Instead, they go to appropriate folders that get reviewed and cleaned out right after my parking lot folder is reviewed at 3:00 PM.

Still a Work in Process and I Want Your Advice

So, these are some of the things I have done to maintain inbox zero.  To be sure, this is a work in process and I am not presuming my system is perfect.

As such, I’d REALLY like to hear from you.  What do you like about my approach?  What don’t you like?  What would you suggest I do differently or try?

My goal is to update this article as I fine tune my process so be sure to bookmark this page if you’re interested in following my progress!

Finally, if you are at inbox zero on a regular basis how do you do it?

9 Comments

  1. Ariana Jones

    May 20, 2014 - 8:16 am

    Thank you for sharing this advice. I am not always able to maintain inbox 0 but when I don’t I find my biggest issue is lack of consistency. So your idea of doing specific things at a certain time each day is the main nugget I plan to implement. In the end if it is not on my calendar I cannot guarantee it will get done!

    • Ron Pereira

      May 20, 2014 - 1:24 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Ariana! I definitely agree with how important it is to live in your calendar…

  2. Tomasz

    May 21, 2014 - 6:19 am

    Hi Ron,
    Very valuable text. Below what help me with me daily e-mails/calendar work:
    1. Think twice to put people to CC – do we need all?
    2. Never read e-maila twice :-). Read and action, if its shorter than 2min – just do it. No generate unreaded e-mails
    3. Always use agenda, goal and preapration for meeting set-up.
    BTW- I never accept meetings than longer 1h without any details.
    Finally – go and see insted meet and mail 🙂

    • Ron Pereira

      May 21, 2014 - 7:05 am

      Thanks for the comment, Tomasz! Another thing I attempt to do (similar to your #3) is pick up the phone and talk instead of email! In fact, I may add this to my list since I definitely try to do this as much as possible.

  3. George Mahoney

    May 21, 2014 - 7:31 am

    Ron,

    I am not at a zero inbox yet, but I am really close.

    For me, the biggest help was to stop sending so many emails.
    The more email I sent, the more people would email me back.

    Now I just call them or do the unthinkable … go see them face to face.

    • Ron Pereira

      May 21, 2014 - 7:32 am

      Love it, George! Thanks for the comment!

  4. R. Dhamotharan

    May 21, 2014 - 8:48 am

    It is nice to see yr mail regarding “yr goal to ensure zero mails in Inbox” I would like to add few comments from my end.

    As I am working in an organization, I do get various routine mails from various fronts such as Production, Quality, administration, ISO activity, Engineering in addition to inter-plant communications.

    I also felt on many occasions to minimize the mails in Inbox. I keep official mails & personal mails separately. As far as official mails are concerned, I follow to maintain separate folders meant for each dept/function which will be unit wise too in my personal folder so that I can read the incoming mails & take action appropriately (action by self & forwarding to concerned people for doing needful.

    I shift the mails from folders such as “Inbox & Sent” twice in a day . Also delete the emails un wanted / non-value addition iyems on daily basis.

    But till date I did not aim for Zero mail in Inbox but try to minimize number of mails. I maintain a rule (automatically with colour code) to highlight the mails coming from senior management in the organization for quick response.

  5. Joe Brennan

    May 21, 2014 - 10:58 am

    I have been aiming for ZERO over the past few years. This includes a similar set of professional and family e-mail accounts.

    My secret has been to set the aim and then work consistently to achieve it.

    Sometimes I get behind and skim for “most important” but never open without disposition – My belief is that if you touch it, you need to act on it.

    Also use your suggestion to periodically unsubscribe if the newsletter content is not right.

    BUT I SAVE EVERYTHING – never open it later but fear something important can slip by – a future improvement task to work.

  6. Kelly

    June 7, 2014 - 8:35 am

    Thanks Ron, these were great tips. I also struggled with inbox overload which would cause me to exceed my company’s allotment of memory storage. I would then have to stop what I was doing and free up space before I could send or receive any more mail. This was a pain.

    In Kata style, I set up both a condition that encompassed both email quantity and a free space. I tracked both numbers daily (yes! Run charts!) until I experimentally found routines that worked for me. I know it sounds extreme but I finally got fed up with the productivity loss I was causing myself. I felt so guilty when I saw my plot trending the wrong direction- that chart was the catalyst in my behavior change. I still haven’t found a routine that works well when I travel- but I’m working on it