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Email. Love it or hate it, it’s still a critical part of running a business. And if we’re not careful, our inboxes can become unmanageable at worst or a major irritation and time suck at best. But it doesn’t have to be that bad.

Enter Inbox Zero.

A productivity methodology and term coined by Merlin Mann over a decade ago, Inbox Zero is an approach to email management with the goal of keeping your inbox empty — or almost empty — as much as possible.

Inbox Zero is a methodology that can really help keep your inbox under control. It’s not easy – at first. But it can become super easy. Here’s how I’m able to keep my inbox to anywhere from five or six messages to zero.

Spark, my preferred email app

I’ve tried many email apps. I’ve even tried plugins for Apple Mail to help with processing and productivity. And for a long time I simply stuck with Apple Mail because it’s simple and does its job. But it didn’t really help in the way of productivity. At least not in the way I’ve been “doing” productivity for a while now.

So I switched to Spark. While there are arguably better options (or just different ones), Spark is free unless you need the various team features it touts. I don’t. I just need two key features that Spark handles wonderfully for no additional cost: scheduling and snoozing.

Send it later!

One of the best things about my work is that I can work from virtually anywhere at pretty much any time I want, meetings and calls notwithstanding. While I tend to work during typical business hours, there are days where I start later or work later purely because other things came up or I just decided I needed a 3-hour break in the sunshine. That means I’m sometimes checking email after business hours. That isn’t an issue in itself, but if I’m not careful, it sets an expectation that I’m available at just about any time which isn’t true. And that’s where Spark’s Send Later feature comes in.

Let’s say I’m checking email at 7 PM. Rather than sending right away, I schedule the email to be sent the next morning. This is incredibly useful because it allows me to answer emails that need answering while keeping a boundary on my available work hours. The latter is essential for my sanity. The only exception is truly urgent things, but I make that clear with clients up front anyway, so it gets handled differently than standard email.

Goodnight emails!

There are times when I’m going through email and I’m staring at one that I’m not 100% sure what to do with (I’ll get into processing emails in a bit). And then there are times when I’m simply trying to process email as quickly as possible. For both of these scenarios, Spark’s snooze feature is perfect.

Snoozing an email basically takes it out of your inbox and then makes it reappear after a set time has passed (which you select). It’s a handy feature when you just need to push something aside for a bit. Admittedly, all this really does is delay the action of processing that particular email to a later time. So it’s a form of procrastination not that different from just letting the email sit and rot in your inbox. For that reason, I’m trying to use this feature less and less.

More features

There are a few other features that I really like in Spark and how the app handles them. The smart inbox is definitely one of them. I’ll have to write about that some other day.

Processing emails

Productivity nerds and experts like Tiago Forte have a rule of touching every email just once. I can’t say for sure if it’s meant to be a strict rule. If it is, it’s one I’ve broken a million times. There are just too many occasions where I need to “touch” an email again for one reason or another. I’m guessing most people are like that. So let’s just say this is a flexible rule – one to aim for but not to get hung up on.

The real key behind Inbox Zero, for me anyway, is simply taking action on each and every email that comes through your inbox. There are four actions you can take: delete, archive, reply, set as task.

This is simple. If you don’t need it, get rid of it. Be merciless with this.

For every other email, you’re probably going to need it, even if just to jog your memory about something. So if you’re done with it, archive it. Don’t put it in some fancy folder or add a bunch of tags – just archive it in whatever way your email app does archiving.

If the email is short and to the point, and if you can answer within a couple of minutes or less, just reply. Then archive it.

Set as a task
If an email can’t be deleted, can’t quickly be replied to, and needs a longer answer, you should set it as a task in your task manager app. For instance, if the email is related to a project, or if multiple steps are needed to provide a good reply (such as providing a proposal), set your task with an easy way to find that email again. In, for example, you can use Quick Entry with Autofill to link to the email.

Pro-tip: that weekly email from a store you shopped at months ago? If it’s constantly getting deleted, do yourself a favor and unsubscribe. You won’t miss it. I promise.

If there’s one other tip for achieving Inbox Zero, it’s to keep your email app closed when you’re doing other work. It’s just too easy to get distracted by email when you’re switching between apps. Out of sight, out of mind.

Just another habit to build

It’s not difficult to get to Inbox Zero. The idea is simple, as are the steps. Okay, at first, it’s likely going to suck if you have hundreds, if not thousands, of emails in your inbox. The key is to process your email on a regular basis so that it becomes such a breeze it takes less than ten minutes. In the long run, this process is going to help you stay organized, avoid time wasting, and keep frustration at bay.

One important thing to note is that having zero emails in your inbox isn’t really the end goal here. Merlin Mann put it best:

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”

This methodology will help you get there.