Can we talk about “inbox zero” for a second?
That near-mythical state of nirvana when you’ve read, archived, or deleted all the emails in your inbox. Oh, to ascend that stairway to heaven and experience the bliss of having no more tasks on your to-do list.
Because that’s what we mean, really, when we talk about inbox zero. What we’re actually talking about is “task zero.” When it comes to work, most of use our inboxes as a kind of to-do list. With work email, you’re not exactly getting a ton of emails just checking in on your wellbeing. Work emails come with strings attached — strings attached to tasks.
When the task is done, you’re done with the email.
Inbox zero doesn’t feel good because of some “otaku” sense of compulsion or completionism. It feels so good because it means you’re done with work. And there are few feelings as good as being done with work.
The last time I had inbox zero was my first day at Front. There are currently 4,828 unread emails in my personal email account. I have 10,298 total emails. I’ve made peace with the reality that I will never dig my way to the bottom of that.
But my Front inbox is actually pretty manageable, even though I’ll probably never get to zero there either. Inbox zero isn’t right for everyone, and it isn’t right for me. For me, my inbox is my to-do list. Without messages in it, I have nothing to do. That said, there’s a reason my Front inbox only has 20 or so open messages at any given time considering my lack of organizational skills.
And that’s automation.
Not all messages have the same urgency, action, or function. But if you’re not careful, you’ll burn a ton of energy making decisions about how to prioritize them. Decision fatigue is real, and you don’t want to waste your energy figuring out what to do with an automated notification from your file-sharing service.
You make the decision once, and let a robot take care of the tedious part. I have four go-to tactics for automating my inbox, and you’ll be able to do all of them even if you don’t use Front (well, as long as you’re not using Eudora or something like that).
If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I don’t have time to deal with this right now,” the snooze button is your weapon of choice. It solves the problem of time scarcity by instantly putting off the decision to the future. Does it sound like procrastination? It is! Isn’t that irresponsible? It is not!
Studies show you make worse decisions when you feel stressed. So, life-hack: make fewer decisions while you’re stressed. Kick the can down the road to a time when you have more time.
I use snooze as a knee-jerk reaction to emails I’d rather look at later in the day. When you check your messages in the morning, there are some things in there you’d just rather look at in the afternoon. Snooze ‘em.
But I also use snooze strategically for the ping. For example, I get receipts throughout the month, but I only do my expenses once a month. Snooze those receipts til the 30th for a friendly reminder to DO YOUR EXPENSE REPORT! You’ll thank yourself.
*In Front, you can set up messages to snooze automatically, so you don’t even have to bother yourself with the decision to snooze. That’s pro-level procrastination. Pro-crastination.
Speaking of receipts, I used to do freelance video work right after I graduated college. After being horrified to find out way too late about the concept of a “W-9,” I remember frantically combing through my car, my wallet, my couch, my laundry, trying to find all my receipts. From then on, every receipt went straight into a binder.
Some people collect and preserve baseball cards. Freelancers collect and preserve receipts.
These days, it’s a lot easier to organize them when they’re digital by using tags or folders. And it’s not just receipts — I tag almost everything now. And I don’t even do it manually.
All my SaaS receipts get auto-tagged and sorted with their own tag. All my calendar invites do too. I get tons of notifications from Dropbox and Paper. Those get tagged automatically and filed. We also get automated reports on sales and marketing progress. Those get tagged automatically too, so I can really quickly see how we’re doing against previous benchmarks.
*You might not be able to automate tags in your email client. But in Front, setting up rules to sort emails based on inherent criteria like the sender, the subject, or even words in the content of the message is pretty easy.
Let’s be real: how many emails in your inbox do you even need to look at? Like, half? When it comes to automated notifications, I set most of them to skip my inbox. Asana notifications? I’ll check Asana for those, thanks. They never see the light of day. Paper notifications? Automatically tagged and archived.
“But Matt,” you say, “Why not turn off those notifications or just delete them entirely?”
First of all, forget about the concept of deleting an email, even if it’s just a notification. There’s no need. Archiving is just as good as deleting at getting things out of your way, and better than deleting in the sense that on the 0.001% chance you actually need that message, it’s not lost forever. And data storage? That’s just not an issue either. On my personal Gmail account I have literally 10,000 emails adding up to 9.8 GB of data. That’s 9% of my Google storage. Bear in mind, it took me over 10 years to accumulate that much digital detritus.
I think I’m going to be okay.
So just archive your old or unnecessary messages. And do it automatically with an auto-archiving rule if you can!
*This is my favorite automation in Front.
Back before I started at Front, auto-forwarding was something I used to just have all the emails from my college “.edu” address sent to my Gmail inbox. I never used it to auto-forward messages to other people. I would forward by hand as needed.
That’s because I was using my personal email for, well, personal use. But at work, I’m part of a team. And Front was a game-changer for working as part of a team.
Nobody really uses forwarding that much here at Front. I haven’t forwarded anything since I started. There’s really no need — especially internally. But automatically sorting and assigning messages into shared inboxes is kind of the whole point of Front. When a message comes into our support inbox, it can be automatically assigned to the next available rep or to any rep based on multiple criteria. Front can even load-balance inbound requests automatically. In super high volume scenarios like support or service or logistics, it’s impossible to do that with something like a personal email account.
But I did promise that any of these tactics would be possible with a standard email client, and that’s why I brought up auto-forwarding.
In Gmail, for example, you can accomplish something kind of like an “assignment” by creating a filter and auto-forwarding those messages to another email address.
Let’s say you’re a freelancer trying to do your taxes. You can create a filter for “invoices” or “receipts” and auto-forward them to a business address or to your accountant or you can delete them to feel what 22-year-old me felt on April 14th my first year of freelancing.
*What you won’t get with the auto-forwarding workaround is any sense of continuity between your copy of the email and the forwarded email once it’s sent. In Front, assigned emails are still just one email, and are transparent to all parties involved, so you can track the progress, see responses, chime in with a comment, or generally be aware of what’s going on with it.
Written by Matthew Klassen
Originally Published: 15 October 2020