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Can’t keep up? Use this magic question to simplify getting your email inbox to zero

Can't keep up

One of the things I see people (and myself!) struggling with most consistently is email. Particularly, due to the flood of emails many professional receive each day, they spend all day in their inbox: sorting, reading, trying to figure out to-dos, processing, reading new mails that arrive in between, answering, reading new emails, etc.

This leads many people to spend more time processing email than everything else they should be doing. Particularly, email represents other people’s agenda, not your own. So, ideally, you want to process email as quickly as possible as a prerequisite for doing what’s most important. So here’s how to go about it.

Fundamental rules:

  1. Batch process email: do not check your emails constantly. Instead, check them as few times as possible per day.
  2. Separate your to-do list from your inbox. Emails are the worst to-dos ever. Keep a separate to-do list.
  3. Touch every email only once when processing: after reading or scanning an email, it should disappear from your inbox after you have figured out exactly what needs to be done about this email.

One overarching question: What’s the next action?

One of the most fundamental elements of ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) is processing the inputs of your life into your trusted system by asking the question “What’s the next action?”. So when processing your inbox you should ask yourself the question “What’s the next action?” for every single email. It sounds simple, but it is tremendously helpful to get clarity really quickly.

Possible next actions for processing email

  • Delete: The best of them all. Use liberally. (Hit the key ‘#’ in Gmail)
  • Archive: For information that may need to be retrieved at some point. Email programs like Gmail let you archive emails with one click (or hitting the letter ‘e’). Otherwise, you can also have a folder called ‘Archive’.
  • Boomerang: For emails which you don’t want to deal with right now but at some point in the future (in 1 hour, tomorrow, next week, August 25). Several services allow you to do that easily. I personally prefer Nudgemail, but you can also use or Boomerang (for Gmail). You may also want to do this with items you would like to review someday but don’t really have the time for right now. So you can also remind yourself of ‘learn Spanish?’ in half a year by sending that email to
  • Transfer to calendar: straight-forward enough
  • Act on email / reply: follow the two-minute rule. If an action takes less than two minutes it is easiest to do it immediately to close the loop. If it takes longer than two minutes you must not do it while processing email (remember? That’s what we’re doing right now. Processing, not acting). Instead you should transfer the action item to your to-do list and archive the email (some people prefer a separate folder the ‘to-do emails’). Make sure to create the to-do as actionable as possible, i.e. ‘Call John to set up a meeting time’ instead of ‘John meeting’.
  • Delegate: forward the email to someone else who should take care of it. I recommend combining this with a boomerang to build follow-up into your system automatically. For example, if you need information from a team member by tomorrow send her the email with the request and bcc. ‘’. Tomorrow, you will get the email sent back to your inbox as a reminder of the outstanding deliverable. Genius.

Combine this method with the Email Game (if you use Gmail) and you will have processed your email in no time.

Where does the system break?

Sounds easy enough but it often does not work. Why?

Foremost, people don’t trust their system! So they keep emails in the inbox because they know they will always find it there. As a consequence, emails keep getting read and re-read. Every time, your brain needs to engage with the email, decide what to do about it (postpone or act upon it? And what should be done?). Since you’re doing this with so many emails your brain gets tired…

What kind of magic happens when you actually transfer email to-dos to your to-do list? Your to-do list grows really quickly! And that’s okay. Because now all of a sudden you have to pick to-dos from your actual to-do list, and you may even end up choosing the really important ones. Whereas before, all you did was busywork, answering emails and helping other people fulfill their agenda. All of sudden, you are working on your most important stuff while urgent but unimportant busywork sits untouched in your inbox and doesn’t wreck your brain 17 times.

Also, people spend too much time in their inbox because they are afraid of missing time-sensitive email. Or they get lost in email while writing emails or searching for emails. Check out this article if that’s your problem.

Your game plan

Okay, you can make this happen today!

  • Separate your to-do list from your email inbox. In its simplest form, put a white sheet of paper next to your computer and start writing down your daily to-dos.
  • Set times when you will process email. Write them down and set reminders.
  • Put a sticker or post-it note to your computer saying ‘What’s the next action?’ This will give you all the clarity that you need.
  • Process your emails rigorously according to this system during your pre-defined times. Ask yourself ‘What’s the next action?’ for every single email.
  • Get to inbox zero
  • Close your inbox / email software completely
  • Turn to your to-do list and pick the most important item. Resort to strategy #3 and #4 if you need email in order to work on your to-dos.
  • Work on that!

Why not give it a try today? Unless you work in customer service you are not getting paid to process email but to do important work. So go out and do that!

There are no failures, only experiments!

PS: Any roadblocks that you are hitting or strategies that I might have missed? Tell me!

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3 Responses to Can’t keep up? Use this magic question to simplify getting your email inbox to zero

  1. Niraj Ranjan Rout (@nirajr) May 13, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    This is a very interesting read, Johannes. Processing your inbox has certainly become one of the cumbersome tasks in the present age. The fundamental rule makes sense – especially keeping the to-dos away from the inbox.

    We run an email collaboration tool ourselves, a tool that makes delegation over email very easy. It allows you to assign emails as tasks by sharing gmail labels, right from your inbox!

    Cheers, Niraj
    Founder, GrexIt (

    • Johannes May 13, 2015 at 8:40 am #

      Hi Niraj,

      thanks! I agree, email is one of those quests of the modern age, and will stay to be so for a while… of course there are lots of tools out there and I can see how yours may be interesting for an organization (even though it seems from your video that would mean keeping those emails in your inbox even longer waiting for your team members to act on them).


  2. Niraj Ranjan Rout May 15, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Actually, once you delegate an email using a shared label (a GrexIt feature), the email is synced to that user’s inbox. So you can go ahead and remove it from your inbox!

    GrexIt is great for quickly delegating emails that you need others to take care of. Very good for customer support and sales leads – thats what most of our customers use it for.

    Hope that makes sense.

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