In principle, the start of a new year is a time when businesses want, sometimes even need, to hit the ground running. In practice, however, most people are going to need a little time to let go of the old year and transition into the next. Making some time to work towards inbox zero can be a productive way to make that transition.
The basics of inbox zero
Inbox zero started as an email-management concept and it’s still often used in that way. These days, however, the basic principle of inbox zero can be applied to all different kinds of messages. These include instant messages and even voice messages.
The basic idea behind inbox zero is that you should always end the day with an empty inbox, hence the name. In reality, this may or may not happen. The key point is that aiming for this (without obsessing about it), will guide you towards the most effective ways to process your messages.
Over time, the ability to achieve inbox zero has become tied to the efficiency of business processes in general. Essentially, the more efficient your processes are, the fewer times humans will need to “touch” a task and, hence, the fewer messages there will be pinging around the company network.
In the real world, advanced systems integrations may be outside the capacity of the average SMB. It should, however, be entirely possible for small businesses to maximize the value they get from common business tools such as messengers, calendars, and contact databases. This is enough for an effective implementation of inbox zero.
Destroy as much as you can
One of the guiding principles of inbox zero is that, whenever possible, you don’t just delete, you destroy. In other words, you do whatever it takes so you never have to see anything related to that message again unless you actively choose to do so.
At a basic level, you can achieve this by being more proactive in your email management. For example, instead of just hitting the delete button, think about whether or not you can unsubscribe. In a work context, this may not be possible, but it’s generally possible to set up email filters to divert notification emails into folders.
It might also be handy to note that many common email and messenger clients now have “mute” buttons. This means that if people keep trying to include you in a conversation even though you’d rather leave, you can put that conversation on silent.
Delegate wherever possible
In simple terms, there should be a fairly strong link between the amount of time you spend on a task and the amount of value you add to it. If you’re finding yourself spending a lot of time on a task without feeling like you’re contributing anything meaningful to it, then it’s a good sign that you should delegate that task and all the messages which go with it.
Delegation may mean passing it along to someone more appropriate within your business. It is, however, increasingly common for it to mean offloading it to a specialist partner or an automated solution (or a combination of both). This is useful for any non-core activity, especially one where you might need to show an audit trail or back up a decision in court (or to regulators).
For example, it’s becoming increasingly important for companies not just to be able to verify the identity of people signing legal documents but to validate their competency to do so. Using an online notary service achieves both purposes at a reasonable cost and puts the business on a solid legal footing.
Do whatever you can now
Actioning tasks quickly helps to reduce the number of messages they generate. In other words, people won’t be sending you messages to chase the messages they’ve already sent you. There is, however, some nuance here and this nuance can trip up people with a limited understanding of inbox zero.
The key point to understand is that “actioning tasks quickly” means “as quickly as reasonably possible”. It does not mean that you have to ping out a response to every message the moment it comes in. In fact, this is often the exact opposite of efficiency and hence the guiding principle of inbox zero.
Ideally, you should be deciding when you are best able to process your messages. Once you have identified these times, you should block them out in your calendar. This reduces the likelihood that you will be disturbed. Then you should focus exclusively on dealing with your messages until either they are done or the time is up.
You may find it helpful to turn off message notifications to avoid being tempted to look at your inbox outside of these periods. Alternatively, you can try fine-tuning them so you only receive notifications for messages which are genuinely likely to be important/urgent. This can give you a nice balance between getting peace to work and knowing you will see high-priority messages.
Always commit to a deadline
If you can’t act immediately then you must commit to acting by a deadline. In principle, it doesn’t really matter what this deadline is, the point is to force yourself to commit to taking action. In practice, deadlines will generally be driven by work requirements.
If you are going to set yourself a deadline (or have one imposed on you), then you need to make sure you either have or can get all the information you need to complete the task. If at all possible, you want it all in one place. If you can’t put it all in one place, then you need to list out where the various items are to be found.
Putting all this together can be one of the most tedious parts of implementing inbox zero. It is, however, often one of the most valuable. Get it right the first time and you only need to do everything once. What’s more, you can even set yourself automatic reminders for any actions you still need to take. This is often vastly more efficient than relying on your memory.