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Person’s hands on a laptop keyboard photographed from above as they type, possibly processing email.
Oct 19 2020

The Email Processing Ecosystem

I’ve always liked a tidy email inbox. Deleting emails is so satisfying that I sometimes do it therapeutically. Literally. Like one time I was stuck recovering on the couch, and I spent hours relaxing by sifting through years of emails in my most neglected inbox. Fortunately, I didn’t delete anything important!

I sorted email with folders when folders were the thing. Then, when everyone realized how annoying that was, I switched to using labels. I’m still working on perfecting the art of the Gmail filter, and may be doing so until the day the grid collapses.

Yes, yes, like my fellow Upswept-ers, I’m a nerd. But, also like my fellow Upswept-ers, I loathe a cliché

The concept of “Inbox Zero” seemed like nothing but a buzzword, and, frankly, a waste of time. Why not just keep your recent emails at hand? What were a few rows of text if you could easily find what you needed anyway? Wasn’t this just another way for tech bros to flex on normies—like wearing black turtlenecks daily or waking up at 4 a.m. to drink a glass of cold water and do 50 push-ups?

Preparing our online class on email management led me through multiple methods of inbox management. I had scaled down to about 30–60 emails in our company inbox over the last few weeks, and I thought, “Aaaaw…why not give this thing a shot?”

What it Feels Like to Totally Empty Your Inbox

The concept of Inbox Zero means that you create an email processing and archiving system that leaves your actual inbox with nothing in it by the end of the day (or whatever point in time you decide). When you get there, all of your emails have been sorted or acted upon in one way or another. 

So I finally buckled down and tried it, and it was like the first time I jumped off a diving board as a kid (although my second grade cohorts weren’t there goading me into it—just a chorus of faceless bloggers). Looking at a big white box with only the words “Your Primary Tab is Empty” gave me a free-falling sensation in my gut the first several times I looked at it.

You’ve gotta get your socially-distanced kicks somehow I guess.

This doesn’t mean that you just delete everything that comes in, however. Inbox Zero requires you to have tools and the systems in place to actually deal with things as they come. It almost demands that you have a plan for how to act on whatever message is zapped your way.

Respecting Your Digital Ecosystem

The biggest thing that I’ve learned about email processing in the last week is that it’s much more than just a collection of messages. It’s not a digital desert island receiving communications via virtual carrier pigeon. To really be able to deal with your inbox, you need help from other apps. 

Think of it this way: if you needed to write a book review (yes, I’m talking about books again), sorting your bookshelf into alphabetical order would help you find what you need more easily. However, it’s only one step to get organized and get the result you want.

Your calendar shows you when the report is due, and helps you plan when you’ll work on it. The assignment is going to be part of your to-do list, because you doubtlessly have a lot of other things going on. Of course, you probably also have a notebook or notes app to write down all the important points and get your drafts in order. Then, you have a word processor to complete the article itself.

Your inbox’s ecosystem extends beyond what goes into your account—into the realms of your calendars, your to-do lists, your project management systems, and your personal note taking software. It takes more than a few color-coded categories to get all that you need to get out of your inbox.

Trying out Inbox Zero has really emphasized the importance of dealing with your email as it comes. It has given me perspective on how the way you deal with your inbox can help your workday move more easily—especially as a project manager! 

My recommendation is if you’re truly going to embrace your inner nerd, you’ve got to be willing to jump right off that diving board and over your hatred of cliches. It’ll probably help you get some work done too.

Here’s another link to that class if you’d like to hear more about how I did it.

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