For years I've heard people talk about Inbox Zero, this mythical concept that would turn email into communication Zen. To be honest it sounded ridiculous, and wholly unachievable. My methodology for years was to keep everything important in my inbox so I wouldn't forget to do it. Unfortunately I was also lazy with my inbox, so email after email piled up until the important emails got buried and I would start receiving mailbox full errors.

I recently got to hang out with two exceptional people at Microsoft, Tobin Titus and J.D. Meier, who explained that I was doing it wrong. Essentially, I was going to my mailbox on the curb at home, opening some items, reading them, and then stuffing everything back inside. It was far from being productive. They then proceeded to talk about Inbox Zero. Inbox Zero isn't about keeping your inbox empty, it's about filtering. At its core, that means determining “Is the email actionable?” An item is either actionable or it's not. Do I need to read (gather information), reply, forward, perform a task? If it's not, it either gets deleted or shuffled off into a folder for retrieval later. If it is actionable, that's where things get fun.

I have never been a big fan of the Task List in Outlook. I mean, I was in concept, but it very quickly became unwieldy with the out-of-the-box settings. To change that, I had to change how it works. Tobin and J.D. made a couple of suggestions. First, I went into the Color Categories and started setting up categories: Needs Reply, To Do, To Read, Projects, Misc, etc. This enables me to mark each email with the action I need to take. It's worth noting that I didn't create a category for each project - I want to keep it as simple as possible. Next, I went to the Task List and under Group By, set it to group by Categories. Now the Task List would show me actionable items by what action I needed to take. Lastly, since the Task List would show me actionable work, I no longer need to keep emails in the inbox so they get filed away under various sub-folders.

The second concept I learned involved a very powerful part of Outlook that I had long since ignored: Quick Steps. Quick Steps are like macros for Outlook, allowing you to perform any number of actions on an email: move, copy, delete, mark as read, flag, set category, reply, etc. Actions can also be cascaded, so I could take an email with new specifications for a project and mark as read, set the Project category, flag the email, and move it to a project sub-folder. To make things even easier, I can also assign one of nine keyboard shortcut operations (CTRL+SHIFT+[0-9]) to help speed up the process.

Using these tips together I am currently at Inbox Zero and Task List Eight, and it feels great! Thanks to Tobin and J.D. for teaching me email Zen!

For more great tips and tools, check out J.D.'s book "Getting Results the Agile Way (for work and life)". It's fantastic for people that want to achieve success both professionally and personally!