Inbox zero: email techniques for more efficient knowledge workers (like reporters) [VIDEO]

For anyone who traffics in ideas, relationships and  communication (and reporters are certainly that), “one of the most important soft skills you can have is handling a high-volume of email,” said Merlin Mann in his well-trafficked 2007 “Inbox Zero” Tech Talk.

The idea here is that time and attention are irreplaceable, finite and the most valuable resources of knowledge workers. So, as silly as it sounds, managing efficiently your email is a major skill.

Yet we all get overwhelmed by the fire hose that is our email inbox (and don’t put any workforce development time to this). For an industry that needs to keep our sources organized and be able to manage relationships (and do so by emailing better), that’s a sin. As I’ve brought on a couple reporters, I’ve found myself working with my cofounder Brian James Kirk, a true student of email productivity, to coach them on better email practices.

Fortunately, five years ago Mann was already preaching against “living in your email,” and talking about a mechanism to “create walls where there aren’t” in your life. In our company culture of efficiency, Kirk and I have absorbed much of Mann’s mentality, and I’ve tried to push my reporters on extrapolating what that workflow looks like specifically for reporting.

Below, watch Mann’s 2007 lecture on the subject.

Inbox Zero

(Processes that Kirk and I have developed but that are also echoed by Mann)

  • Your inbox is a workspace, not an archive — So keep that workplace clean. Use folders to create a to-do list and prioritize your tasks, but keep your inbox cleared out of big tasks.
  • Remain task orientated with email — Don’t let email drive your priorities, but rather schedule out time and move on. For me, I tell myself I am going to handle my email inbox for a half-hour or so, and then focus on my own to-dos and priorities.
  • These are the labels in my Gmail account. The folders I most actively use are “Follow up,” “For Action” and “Meeting Notes.”

    Create smart labels — Though Mann, Kirk and others have more detailed systems, for me, I have “Follow up,” “For Action” and “Meeting Notes” to drive my workflow. Though I have others to help me organize (information about my house, general work emails and freelancing stuff), these three are the ones I most consistently work in. When I check my email, I respond to everything I can immediately (Kirk says to respond to anything that takes less than three minutes), then put everything that requires action into “For Action,” to serve as a to-do list, drop all my correspondences that I expect I will need to nudge people on in “Follow up” and keep my staff meeting notes in the last folder, where my bigger picture tasks reside.

Other tips from my process

(Some of which has surely developed in partnership with my cofounder Kirk)

  • Delete unneeded email — This helps me with searching my inbox, so I try to only keep items I might want to someday find. (The value of Gmail’s size is guilt-free ‘archiving,’ but needless clutter still hurts, so I err on the side of caution, but for spam, old newsletters and small items, I delete ‘em)
  • Accept the archive — I spent a good few years being frustrated by my commitment to answer every email sent to me, while I consistently found myself following up multiple times with people about even practical action. But now, though I still make it a goal to respond to all thoughtful or relevant notes and though sometimes I get behind, I have found myself archiving over-asking and others who break relationship or other straightforward rules. My time is valuable, I need to protect it, as far as I feel willing to offer others.
  • Email signature — This is nothing new, but, yes, have a sensible email signature that wraps together your contact information and relevant ways to interact with you. (For a reporter, it’d be different ways to experience your reporting)
  • BCC is a gift — Yes, putting someone on Blind Carbon Copy in an email is a nice way to secretly give someone a heads up on something, but an even better function is knock unneeded people from an email chain. I love when people do this to me, so I do it to others. If five of us were on an email chain, and then just two of us need to followup, I move the rest to BCC (with a parenthetical acknowledgement), and so they have some resolution on the thread but don’t need to keep getting pinged with notes they don’t need.

Gmail-specific tips

While much of the above can happen in any email client, I’ve been long a fan of Gmail (and wanted to stretch Google apps for journalists), and so there are some details specific to accounts managed there (my work email accounts are managed through Gmail):

  • Labels: Though some of this could also be managed with folders from any email client, I’ve always liked Gmail’s ‘labels’ feature, which allows for an email to be associated with multiple label. This is the bedrock of my organization in Gmail. (Native to Gmail)
  • Tasks: The small, pop-up window feature that Gmail has is where I keep my rolling meeting agenda and my to-do list. (Native to Gmail)
  • Multiple email addresses — In Gmail, I manage multiple email accounts, including my work-related ones. (Find this under Account<< Settings)
  • Auto default email response — With multiple emails in my account, I want to make it default that I respond with whatever email to which someone reached out. (Find this under Account<< Settings)
  • Auto-labels — When someone responds to a specific email address, I have it associated with a specific label. So, for example, if you send an email to my work address, it gets that label, so I can segment out my personal and work stuff. (Find this under Account<< Settings)
  • Default reply all — Most times, when I am emailing with multiple people, I want to continue responding to them, so make that the default. If I only want to respond to one person, that’s when I want to actively make that choice. (Find this in Gmail Labs)
  • Send and archive — When I’m done with my action, I triumphantly send that email to the All Mail archive, and I don’t want an extra step to do that, so I set this action up as default. (Find this in Gmail Labs)
  • Canned responses — I say the same things over and over again a lot, so I save time by setting up some phrases in this nifty Gmail tool and just click a button when I want them to appear in an email. (For example, when I am describing my business to someone for the first time). This is also how I handle my various email signatures and can be good for sales outreach. (Find this in Gmail Labs)
  • Undo Send — This may be the Gmail Lab hack that I am thankful for more often than any other. The tool simply delays sending every email for five seconds and you’d be amazed how often your mind races after hitting ‘send’ and you realize something else you should have said, or something you shouldn’t have. This gives you the chance to undo it and try again. (Find this in Gmail Labs)
  • Multiple inboxes — While I don’t personally use this, I know many who like to keep their work and personal accounts separate, so they manage multiple email address inboxes in my single login. (Find this in Gmail Labs)
  • Find big emails to delete — If you’re trying to clear up space in Gmail, say, for keeping a free account, use this service to find the largest files you can dump.

Reporter-specific email folders

(Though my function is not only reporting these days, here are some processes I would use if it was)

  • Story ideas — A folder of bigger trend story ideas or pieces of ideas that I could return to so I always have
  • Stories to write — A folder of pressers or sources or answers that can prompt the stories I’d need to write. This is distinct from a “For Action” folder because I’d segment my day into administrative action (scheduling, research, editing, correspondence, etc.) and actual producing action.
  • Sources to follow up with — In trying to cultivate relationships, I’d set aside some conversations I’d want to return to whether I get a response or not.
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  • salas

    I swear by Boomerang for Gmail; wouldn’t be able to function without it. If I want to push something off my immediate plate (Inbox) but want to deal with it at some determined point in the future, I use Boomerang. Lately I’ve been using it for scheduling tasks as well (send an email to myself, then have it show up in the Inbox on the date it needs to be dealt with).

    Another key for Inbox 0 – filters. Filter anything you can away from your Inbox and into folders that you can check periodically at your leisure like “newsletters”, “community groups”, “daily deals”, etc.