Fight for Inbox Zero.

Reporters, here’s a strategy for handling your email

It’s a common boast of proudly-overwhelmed reporters: how many emails do you have in your inbox? The answer, of course, is supposed to be as big as possible, at least numbering in the thousands.

For me, that’s always essentially sounded like malpractice, like a surgeon boasting she hasn’t calibrated some critical tool. Journalists are in the business of information gathering and disseminating, so one must control her primary tool of the modern trade, and that is surely still email.

Your inbox is your temple. That temple is your work station, so you must keep it clean — put things away in your filing cabinet.

So though I’ve taken email seriously for years from the earliest corners of my professional career, preaching Inbox Zero and obsessing over contact tracking (even back as an undergraduate), I’ve recently been sharing a leaner process to on-board reporters to this way o thinking and wanted to share here.

This is a major part of my own approach to workplace efficiency.

Still for now, Gmail is the right email client to be using. Outlook has adapted many features but both my work and personal emails are with Gmail with intention: it’s an email client build by a search engine company. That means its structure is built on the logic of search and prediction through repetition (what email do you search for most frequently).

Let me say that I’ve all but completely abandoned the use of labels or folders in email. I find that that is the exact kind of dark corner where things can get lost. Still, I find our reporting team responds well to the idea of them.

This is a screenshot of a slide presentation that is part of our on-boarding reporters to Technically Media.
This is a screenshot of a slide presentation that is part of our on-boarding reporters to Technically Media.

Here’s one approach to a reporter’s email inbox, in my experience.

  • Start with a completely empty inbox. Completely. 0. All emails should be archived.
  • Pledge to check your email no more than 2-3 times a day at most (morning, lunch and before you leave, for example).
  • If using Gmail, leverage the ‘Social’ and ‘Promotions’ tabs to less frequently check these, perhaps once day or less.
  • When checking your email (half-hour at a time, is the hope), respond to anything that takes fewer than 2-3 minutes (like scheduling something), otherwise put in one of 4-5 folders.
  • These folders might be: Scheduling, Interviewing, Filing, Internal, For Action
  • *Warning:* I’m increasingly a proponent of getting beat reporters to use a task management tool (I use Asana) for multi-step reporting (as opposed to quick daily hits) and to drop email folders but, again, here’s an approach for those of you who need a transition step. The primary goal is to clean out your email inbox.
  • Scheduling: people you have outstanding requests to schedule time with (phoner, in-person, or meeting you at an event)
  • Interviewing: people whom you’re sending or in the process of getting information from, like email questions or fact checking or follow
  • Filing: when you have answers or information and you just need to write or get into WordPress, though mostly I tried to get stuff like this immediately into WordPress when I received.
  • Internal: For the rate internal email that needs to your review.
  • For Action: Other stuff that’s being asked of you, could be connections or otherwise.

The goal would be to keep your inbox empty and these folders mostly cleaned out weekly. This is just an example of what this could be. And, yes, try out a task management tool for multi-step, longer-term editorial projects.

For now, start simply: get your email Inbox to zero.