Achieving “inbox zero”

BY MANDY K. FRENCH, CPA

Email is one of the electronic age’s most valuable communication tools. However, if this medium is not managed properly, all those messages can clog an inbox and grind productivity to a halt. The following steps will allow you to maintain control of your email so you can achieve “inbox zero.”

  Commit a set amount of time to catching up on email. Depending on the size of your backlog, set aside an hour or more to slice, dice, and delete those messages. If your backlog is in the thousands, you may need to plan several catch-up sessions. This exercise decreases the likelihood you will miss an important commitment or communication because it was buried and increases the emphasis on the items that remain. This cleanup will also ensure you are in compliance with your firm’s document retention policies. Set aside time every day to clean out your inbox to prevent this problem from recurring.

  Review your emails and delete those that can be deleted immediately. This includes old newsletters and alerts that you so diligently saved to read later. Unsubscribe to subscription emails you rarely read to reduce your email noise going forward. Be quick, decisive, and unremorseful.

  Identify emails that require retention, but not action, and immediately file them into an appropriately named folder for future reference. A growing number of professionals retain emails in their inbox and rely on search options to find them later. This practice is inadvisable because each additional email in your inbox decreases the visibility of all the others.

  Focus on quick responses to emails that require response or action. Tackle emails that can be responded to in three minutes or less, and then delete or file the original message as appropriate. While it is easy to put off the quick items in favor of the more problematic ones, the greatest efficiency is achieved by completing as many quick-response notes as possible. This is also the time to send “I will research your question and let you know by next Tuesday”-type of responses on the emails that will require extra time. Set the expectation early that your response will take a set number of days, and determine that window by thinking about the nature of the request and your current schedule. This both informs the recipient of your plan of action and relieves you of internal pressure to respond immediately.

  Turn your attention to emails that require action. These actions fall into three categories: High priority, delegate, and defer.

  • High priority: These are rush items—the ones with the red exclamation points and all capital letters in the subject line. Rather than immediately starting to tackle them, identify when you will complete them in your to-do list for that particular day, and continue with your email management.
  • Delegate: Often a few tasks can be shifted to other people. Identify those opportunities and forward the email to the appropriate person with an expectation of how and when he or she will complete the request.
  • Defer: It is tempting to leave a message sitting in your inbox if you cannot yet respond to it or address it. A better strategy is to place the item on your calendar with a reminder that will prompt you when you are able to act, and then file the email for later reference.


Editor’s note: This checklist is adapted from the article “How to Clean Out Your Inbox—and Keep It That Way,” CPA Insider, April 14, 2014, available at tinyurl.com/mrztxee .

By Mandy K. French, CPA, ( mfrench@hogantaylor.com ) assurance manager at HoganTaylor LLP.

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