My Guide to an Empty Inbox

YES! It is possible!

I’m a big believer in the philosophy that chaos begets chaos, and order begets order. Unfortunately, the bulk majority of my experience comes on the chaos side of things. But over the last few months, I’ve put some practices in place that help me maintain some order in my life – specifically, keeping an empty email inbox.

Now this is certainly not a unique blogpost, in fact I highly recommend Michael Hyatt’s post on the same subject. However, since I have a little bit different of a work flow and process, I felt it could be helpful to you as you fight your way out from under the clutter. You’ll find the process very similar, and yet I use a few different tools.

Quick Response

I’m just not a fan of leaving email in my inbox. I feel an urge to deal with it quickly. I almost always glance at my email when it comes in. (I know some productivity folks recommend only checking it at specific times, but as a pastor, I feel an obligation to be fairly available much of the time.) When it arrives and I glance, I usually know immediately if this is something that requires my attention.

Quick Decision

Every email warrants a decision. Michael Hyatt recommends that we read each message once and answer this question: “Is this message actionable?” I think that’s excellent advice. If there’s something that the email recommends you do, you have a very limited number of options:

  1. Do It: If it’s an answer or an email away and you can take care of it quickly, then do it. It’s well worth the 2 minutes of your time if you can keep it off of your to-do list. Just knock it out. Reply to the email. Give an answer. Make that phone call. If it’s easy and quick, why wouldn’t you do it?
  2. Deny It: Many times, pastors are requested to do things. If we responded to every single one of them with action, we’d never be able to do anything else. Sometimes the healthiest thing to do for your ministry is to say, “no.”
  3. Delegate It: Many times, the request that’s been made is a good one, but not something that you need to devote your time to. That’s not to say you’re above it or that any particular task is beneath you, but that just as the apostles in Acts 6 had a responsibility to not get bogged down with the details and to focus on the Scripture and prayers, you do as well. The “forward” button is a wonderful thing.
  4. To-Do It: I’ve used countless tools to help me organize tasks. There’s no need to reiterate that list, the key here is that you find something that works. No tool – no matter how wonderful – works if you don’t work it. If after reading the email, I realize that it’s something that needs to happen, and that I can’t delegate to someone else, and I can’t do it immediately, it goes on my to-do list. I used to keep those emails in my inbox until they were completed, now I can feel free to archive them once their on the to-do list.

The Optimum Toolkit

The Empty Inbox Merit Badge
  • Gmail: I am repeatedly amazed at the number of people that still use anything else. I use gmail for every email address that I use. Every property that I run uses Gmail for email. The User Interface is just that much simpler, and the almost unlimited ability to archive messages is a huge thing for me.
  • Folders, Folders, Folders: This is one area that I disagree with Michael Hyatt. He believes that only one folder is needed – Processed Mail. I feel very differently about that. It has always helped me to keep different folders for different arenas of responsibility. I’m not a fan of sub-folders, but I can see the benefit of separating emails that correspond with a church that I’m acting as an advisor or consultant for and the church that I’m on staff at. Maybe it doesn’t make that big of a difference, but it makes it easier for me to search for whatever it is that I’m looking for.
  • IMAP: This could fit within the framework of Gmail, but I felt it deserved it’s own bullet-point. By utilizing IMAP, wherever I am (iPhone, Apple Mail, or Gmail itself), I have complete control of an email. I don’t have to delete it in one location and come across it in another. Plus, I usually archive all my email in one particular account, and IMAP allows me to easily transfer an email from one inbox to a folder in a completely different account.
  • Apple Mail App: I had a love/hate relationship with Outlook when I used a PC. It loved to drive me crazy and I hated it. Apple’s Mail App took a little getting used to, but the more I use it, the more of a fan I become of it. It makes utilizing IMAP and folders simply and easy and that’s important for me.
  • TeuxDeux iPhone App: If you’re using another to-do application and it works for you, use that. If not, give this one a try. It’ll blow you away. And even if you’re not an iPhone user, they have a web app that I keep open in my Chrome browser at all times. That way I never have my laptop open without knowing what needs to get done.

The Exception to the Rule

Some emails come in and you realize that you’re pulse quickened the second you saw who it was, or who it came from. Maybe it’s that person that always knows how to push your buttons, or maybe it’s the volunteer who is just about 15 degrees off of your vision. Either way, you realize immediately that to respond instantly to this email would be a bad thing. (Un-Sending an email is almost impossible). Let that one sit for the night. In the morning, make that your first priority. Drink your coffee, read your Bible, and respond to that email. While it didn’t zero your inbox immediately, you’re not going to go through the entire workday with that staring you in the face. And ultimately, that person is valued higher than your empty inbox, aren’t they?

Last Thought

I’m not saying that this is the only way to get it done, but this is working for me, and I’d highly recommend you give it a shot. Just imagine the peace that will engulf you as you fall asleep on your pillow at night with an absolute zeroed out inbox.

*DING*

That one can wait for the morning.

Are you an inbox ninja?

How do you do it?

4 Comments

  1. You treat your email just like your mother treats household clutter, dirty clothes, dishes, bedmaking, dust, messy floors, etc. Just like you, she believes in chaos begets chaos, and order begets order. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    Steve

  2. I am the same as you. Deal with it as soon as possible. When I leave the office in the evening, I like my inbox empty.

    The exceptions are on going projects. I will leave an email or two in my inbox as a reminder to get it done the next morning. That way it doesn’t make it on my to-do list either.

    1. Makes sense, I just prefer my email to be communication and my to-list to be reminders of what needs to be done.

      But I’ve had times when I used your method.

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