If you're an entrepreneur, too, and wondering what is it with us and email, you're not alone. To me, email is the gateway to opportunities, an exchange of stellar ideas, or a chance to help a budding job-quitter blaze the right trail. That said, at times email has become my worst enemy. For one, my partner has "caught" me checking and responding to messages on my phone in bed. At other times, my inbox has been the sole reason I've had near zero productivity for hours.
There was an urgent need to manage my inbox (it counted 41,377 at the time.) and keep it clear. So, I subscribed to the "inbox zero" practice, in which every day each item in your inbox must be moved to the archives, trash, or some other folder.
Here are the four simple hacks I used:
1. Be aggressive in deleting email
I was talking to Aymeric Gaurat-Apelli, founder of Weekplan.net, and asked him how he maintained his sanity and kept his inbox clean all the time. He was kind enough to give me his top tip, but also honest to reveal that he only recently hit inbox zero (which is difficult).
His No. 1 tip? Be generous with email deletion.
I have a confession to make: I used to save each and every email, thinking I might need it sometime in future. I certainly was not deleting generously.
Then Einstein spoke to me: Psssst… "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
Of course. Here I was expecting to achieve inbox zero and yet doing the same ol', same ol'. Once I took Einstein's advice, changed my ways and hit Delete, things became more manageable.
A word of caution: You can delete everything in your inbox, followed by a momentary sigh of relief, only to be attacked by panic shortly thereafter. So don't be a blind deleting machine; delete smartly. The best way I've found for smart deletion is to have folders or labels (or whatever you prefer). You can also choose a label and delete it entirely without touching other messages.
For example, in 2009, when I started my freelance writing business, I subscribed to loads of newsletters that helped freelancers. I labeled them "Blogging stuff," "Freelance writing," "Follow up blog emails," etc.
In hindsight, I admit my labeling skills were below par, but they served the purpose. Today I've come a long way and don't need beginner tips anymore. So I hit Delete and killed these labels in a heartbeat.
2. Unsubscribe ruthlessly
I mean ruthlessly. In the last few weeks, I have unsubscribed from 60 percent of the newsletters I don't need anymore. That was a relief, because I didn't have to keep cleaning up the mess.
Not only that, but having put the effort into unsubscribing so much in the past few days, I kept the habit of subscribing in check.
Like many, I sometimes suffer from the shiny-object syndrome. When I saw a new website, a cool app, or a nice blog, I wanted to subscribe to them. Let's not forget, I loved collecting and filing away the freebies people give away on their websites.
So, I became mindful about subscribing. Just before hitting "submit," I asked myself: Do I really need this service/e-book/subscription? The keyword here is "need" versus "want".
It's amazing how most of the time the answer was a resounding, "No."
3. Ask smart questions first
One of my first blogs was about freelance writing; I shared writing tips and tricks.
I received a lot of email from fellow and budding writers sharing their thoughts and, at times, asking for help. I took time and religiously replied to every email. I was spending a lot of time writing long replies to a dozen questions that a newbie had packed into just one email. At times, the answer would be already available on my blog or the Internet. The sender had not done much research.
I came up with a few questions:
- Can this wait? If yes, move to "Follow up" label. If no, ask the next question.
- Does this really require my attention? If no, move to Archives/Trash. If yes, ask the next question.
- Can I direct them to a resource instead? If yes, send the resource link and move to Archives/Trash. If no, ask the next question.
- Am I ever going to respond/refer to this? If no, then move to Trash. If yes, respond in fewer than five sentences, move to Archives/Trash and get it done.
The first time I saw my inbox size go down from 41,377 to 0, I felt a little lonely. It was as if I was left in the Australian bush all on my own. I wasn't sure that I wanted inbox zero.
When I received a new email, I tried wiping its existence off the surface of my inbox, but it hurt me a little more. If inbox zero was the bush, a thriving, overflowing inbox was the city—and I've always been a city gal.
I continued to keep my inbox empty for the next few days, but the somber feeling wouldn't go away. Then I looked online to see if other people were feeling the same uneasiness inside and bumped into Jeff Bercovici's inbox 50.
What a relief. Jeff probably describes the feeling much better than I do. He writes, "To do inbox zero, you have to like inbox zero."
How true. To do the bush, I must like it first-which I don't right now.
My point? It's OK if you cannot survive the zilch. I've found middle ground in inbox 50-100. You can find it in inbox 80, or inbox 20. Take your pick. So long it doesn't get back to inbox 41,377.
Pooja Lohana loves mashing up her interests and building things. She lives the "un-9 to 5" life where her typical day involves seeing one-on-one clients, speaking at workshops, and writing true stories on her personal development website. A version of this article first appeared on Lifehack.