Mission: Inbox zero (and 5 ways to accomplish it)

Before the year winds down and New Year’s resolutions begin to pile up, many of us look at our email inboxes. Depending on the number of messages there, you either feel a sense of accomplishment or a deep sense of dread. If you’re in the latter camp, eliminating that uneasiness is an achievable goal, and now is the best time to do it. Here are five things to consider when setting up for “inbox zero” success in 2014.

1. Clear out what’s there: The key to successfully managing a truly empty inbox is to get to an empty mailbox. To do that, out with the old!  How many email addresses do you have? If you’re like me, you have one for work, one for home and maybe one for junk mail. If you have more than two or three, consolidation might be in your future. If you’re happy with the amount of email accounts you have, make the most of them.

There are solutions to help reduce the number of messages in your inbox. Mailstrom is a great one and Microsoft Outlook has made great strides in helping people maintain a tidy inbox. Theories about inbox management range from the extreme (deleting everything older than two weeks) to extensive use of subfolders. If you’re a folder user, don’t be afraid to, especially at the end of the year, drag a bunch of emails into a folder called “2013.” That email is there when you need it, but not clogging up your inbox. The key is to not be daunted by the number of emails you’re moving or deleting.

2. Prioritize: Once you’ve deleted or moved emails from your inbox, you probably still have a few that require attention. That’s okay, that just means you’ve done your job in getting rid of everything accept the absolutely essential emails. What’s left are your priority emails. The following empty inbox secrets will help you address them.

3. Delegate: Just because someone sent you a request via email doesn’t mean that you’re the best person to deal with it. If you receive an email where this is the case, address it head on by making sure the best person is handling it. If you are that person, take it out of the inbox, so that it doesn’t remain in email purgatory. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Play on the strengths of those around you!

4. Recognize email’s limitations: Email was not designed to manage your tasks. In fact, email does more to reduce productivity than it does to increase it. If you’ve ever Googled “turn off email”, you’ll get about 2 billion items. There’s a reason people tune out email … it’s a distraction. In fact, as one study shows, email might even be bad for you! It doesn’t have to be though. Email is a useful tool for communication, but it shouldn’t be your sole form of communication and management. If you keep your emails short and impactful, people will read them and act on them. Respond to emails in a way that works best for you. People who deal with you will learn this and adapt.

5. Keep it clean: Face it, the flow of email isn’t going to stop. It’s up to you to keep that from being a distraction by keeping that newly cleaned mailbox empty or close to it. That requires diligence, but more importantly it takes focusing on what’s important and not relying on email as your productivity platform. Just as we are migrating away from PCs toward mobile, we are migrating away from email. Enjoy the move.

Dan Schoenbaum is CEO of Teambox, a company that specializes collaboration,  task management, and file sharing. Follow him on Twitter @djschoen.

Art courtesy of Shutterstock user ayzek