Zero-inbox with Outlook

Zero-inbox at a tactical level is a set of techniques for managing large amounts of email in a reduced amount of time. At a strategic level, it is a way of taking more control of your working day, reducing the urge to spend your day reacting to every new message, and freeing up your mind to focus on tasks that have long term value. The Outlook web app has several integrated tools that can speed up the processing of your emails and reduce the time you spend in your inbox.

Your email inbox is someone else’s To Do list

Tiago Forte

There are four applications you need to manage your email, a calendar, a todo list, a read-later app, and a reference app. The Calendar and To Do app in Outlook will do for the first two; I use Instapaper to store things to read later and Roam Research for my reference app (OneNote is an office365 app and is a better option for you want it all integrated).

You can access both the Calendar and Todo apps in your Outlook online inbox by clicking on the ‘My Day’ icon in the top right-hand menu of the Outlook web app. The ‘My Day’ icon will open a panel down the right-hand side of the browser window. The exciting part is that you can drag an email into this panel and generate a calendar event or a todo item with the email attached for access to it later.

Some basic rules

  • Only read an email once in your inbox, process it as soon as you have read it.
  • Do not move onto a new email until the one you are reading is processed.
  • If ‘completing’ an email will take less than 2 minutes, do it there and then.
  • Block out a time each day when you process all your email in your inbox; I like to do this at the end of the day.
  • Block out a time once per week and then once per day where you read through your todo list and schedule which tasks you will do that week and each day; I like to plan my week on Sunday afternoon and then my day for 5 minutes each morning. 
  • Check-in with your inbox once or twice a day to read the subject lines or new emails to pick up anything urgent. 

How to process your email

  1. The setup
    1. Sort your email in date order with the oldest first, 
    2. Turn off focus inbox and any other tools that put email in additional boxes, so all your unprocessed email is in one inbox.
    3. Unsubscribe from all non-essential newsletters and email lists.
  2. Skim read the first email.
  3. If it takes less than two minutes to complete, do it straight away. 
  4. If it would take longer than two minutes, ask “what do I need to do about this?”
    1. If it requires a conversation, drag the email into the calendar and set a time to meet the sender and cc’d people.
    2. If it requires action, drag the email into the todo list.
    3. If it is a long read, save it to Instapaper to read later by forwarding the email to your personal Instapaper email address found in your Instapaper settings or opening linked webpages and using the chrome extension to save it.
    4. If you want to reference the email later copy and paste the text to your reference app (I will find a smarter way to do this and update this post).
  5. Drag the processed email into a reference folder; it is now accessible via the calendar event and todo item so you should not need to find it again. 
  6. Move to the next email and repeat until all your messages are out of your inbox.
  7. Close your email and go and do something productive.

Email is addictive; many of us will open our inbox as a holding task at any stage of the day when we are bored or have a few minutes to spare. Now you have this ‘holding task’ time back, fill it with a more productive habit such as opening Instapaper and reading something that will make you smarter.

Contact me on Twitter if you try this and want to share how it went. If you are interested in this and want to know more, I suggest you read the One-Touch to Inbox Zero post by Tiago Forte, and if you’re going to get into the details read Getting Things Done by David Allen.