My colleague looked at my screen and said something that surprised me:
“Your inbox doesn’t scroll.”
He look at my screen and repeated again:
“Your inbox doesn’t scroll.”
I looked at my inbox and wondered what fascinated him so.
He went on to say:
“You get more email and send more email than anybody I know, so how do you keep your inbox empty?”
So of course, how I manage email stole the show and became our conversation topic for the rest of the meeting.
Zero Email Inbox at Microsoft
Let’s first take a look at what most people have never actually seen, because they’ve never managed to clear their inbox or keep it at zero long enough to enjoy it:
Voila! Behold, the infamous empty inbox! (Some say its rarer than Bigfoot).
Nothing fancy. Just a lot of whitespace. A lot of empty. Breathing room.
And that’s the beauty.
It’s a beautiful thing because it means that I’m on top of my game and I’m ready for action and I’ve organized my mind to focus on my prioritize and goals.
But now let’s go back to my earliest days to better understand how I even started keeping an empty inbox at Microsoft to begin with.
Early Email Overload, Paper Shuffling, and Death by 1,000 Paper Cuts
Well, a funny thing happened when I joined Microsoft.
Let’s go back in time…
When I first joined Microsoft, I noticed a lot of people swamped in mail…myself included.
With distributed teams, tough schedules and lots of information to share, email is the tool of choice.
For better or worse, it’s been the universal tool for personal knowledge bases, instant messaging, and dashboards of action and results for many seasoned Softies.
My personal email load was intense.
I was never taught how to manage massive mounds of email in school.
Suddenly, I was bombarded by emails from all directions day in and day out.
I was on multiple aliases and as my world at Microsoft grew, so did my inbox.
And it was a draining exercise for me to work through so many emails, many of which I had to respond to or take some action.
While a lot of work and task management was happening through my inbox, I wanted more time to pair up on problems with colleagues.
I didn’t want to be mired in my inbox doing what felt like paper shuffling and death by 1,000 paper cuts.
Don’t Fail at the Basics
One of my early managers had a simple rule – “don’t fail at the basics.”
And email is a basic thing.
If you do a great job at everything else, but fail at administration, you’ll hold yourself back.
He was right. I
I saw so many of the best potential talent fail at the basics.
I refused to let email become my Achilles heel.
But I also wondered, what would happen if I didn’t even do email?
I Won’t Spend More Than 20 Minutes a Day Clearing My Inbox
I remember asking my manager if I had to do email.
He said of course, that’s how we work, it’s part of the job.
I asked if I was rewarded for it.
He said no, it’s just part of the job.
I said, well, then if I’m not rewarded for it, then I don’t want to do it.
He said, you have to do it.
Well, then, I don’t want to spend more than 20 minutes a day in email.
He said, good luck with that.
You Drive Your Email, Or Your Email Drives You
I decided I wanted two things:
- I wanted the most effective techniques.
- I wanted to spend the least time possible.
While most people were swamped, I noticed a few colleagues not only survived, but thrived.
I got curious.
I learned from them. I studied their principles, patterns, and practices that made these masters of action more effective.
I put many, many systems to the test.
Ultimately, I favored simplicity and flexibility over complicated, restrictive, and fragile.
I learned a lot of great lessons and insights along the way.
Ultimately, the most important lesson I learned was …
… You drive your email or your email drives you!
The Best Lessons I Learned for Better Email Management
The best thing about learning how to organize email is that really I was learning how to organize information.
The are the best lessons I learned as I studied the best of the best, the leaders of achievers and the masters of information management:
- Think of your mail as a stream of potential action or reference
- Factor reference from action
- Use one folder for all read email
- Route out all email not directly to you or your immediate world (team, org … etc.)
- Triage incoming email to either do it or defer it the smart way
- Use lists for action items
- Schedule items that will take time
- Create views using folders and copy key emails
Each of these ideas was a genuine gem, but I had to work through how to implement the idea and experiment what worked for me.
I made mistakes, but each mistake gave me deeper insight into how to setup my email management for the long haul.
The Biggest Lessons that Surprised Me – No Folders
I remember being really curious how one of my managers managed email, because he was really good at finding emails fast.
He showed me his secret:
He said he can find any email just by sorting on that person and maybe a keyword or two if needed.
And he archived his email at the end of each year.
That was it.
It might not sound like much of a secret, but when you’re used to seeing people with lots of folders and lots of inbox rules, this was a contrarian approach.
And it worked great for him.
I realized it didn’t quite work for me, because, as a Program Manager with multiple projects, I needed to effectively create “views” of related emails across stakeholders.
But seeting a totally different approach to managing email helped me break some limiting beliefs and open up to new ideas and methods.
I Accidentally Deleted All My Mail!
I remember coming back from my first vacation at Microsoft. I was really worried about everything I had missed, since I had been gone for two weeks.
I had a few different roles and each of the roles had a bunch of email that came with the territory.
I was all set to blitz through my email as fast as I could.
And then it happened.
I accidentally deleted all of my email.
I had moved all of my email to a folder that was effectively my virtual inbox to process.
Well, because it was a folder I created, it was a folder I could delete.
And I did.
I remember the horror of watching all my email disappear—all in one shot.
I panicked and tried to find anybody that could help me get my email back, but when I contacted supported, the final answer was my email was gone with the wind.
I vowed it would never happen gain.
The End of Paper Shuffling
From that point forward, I optimized around my inbox as my place to process from. I would move emails out of my inbox and only handle them once.
I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall into the “paper shuffling” problem.
Paper shuffling in email terms is when you let an email sit in your inbox and you keep touching it, because you aren’t done with it.
So you basically just end up shuffling the same email around as you try to bring it to closure whether it was acting as a reminder or a task for you to do complete.
So my flow was to process each email as quickly as possible.
I would respond right away with an answer, or if it would take some time, I would reply to the sender that I got their email and I’ll get back to them.
I would give them a quick answer for now and a better answer later.
If there were task items for today, I would extract the task part out into a simple list of tasks for my day.
This way I could control the list and see it at a glance versus fishing through emails to find the task inside.
If I needed to work on the email at a later point or needed some sort of reminder, I learned a trick where I could drag and drop the email on the calendar in the sidebar and it would pop up a calendar appointment.
If the task itself would take a chunk of time, then, similarly to above, I would drag and drop it on my calendar to pop up a calendar appointment so I could schedule time for it.
It was pretty methodical, but it was also pretty fast and it put an end to some of the most common mistakes people make where their email overload and their inbox beats them down, and they eventually lose to the email monster.
The High Performance Aspect of Managing Email Better
I’ve noticed something about high performance here, too.
It’s sort of like the “broken window” effect that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in The Tipping Point.
I found that Softies that let their email management go, ended up letting other aspects of their productivity go, along with it.
On the flip side, keeping an empty inbox is a way of staying on top of your world and playing your best game.
It makes a statement to yourself and others that you know your priorities, you don’t let your world get messy, and you make sure your email workflow supports you, instead of works against you.
It also just makes it easier to work asynchronously with others, share information in a more timely way around the world, and stay on top of things better.
And it helps other people, too, when you can get back to them, and it can really create goodwill and generate better energy.
I know I helped a lot of people when they needed it most and they really needed a key piece of information to move forward.
And what goes around, comes around.
The Beginning of Batch Processing My Email Inbox
While I could clear my inbox pretty fast, by taking out action items into a separate list, and by responding quickly, or adding appointments to my calendar, I stilled wanted to improve.
I found that the “death by 1,000 paper cuts” applies to all the micro-moves around managing individual items at a time.
Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, scroll, click, click, click, click, etc. wears you out.
I wanted to be able to “batch” my work and use fast, sweeping moves to handle multiple emails at a time.
For example, scroll through my box, read in the preview pane, and select all the email that I can mark as read and archive them.
Knowing this was a repeatable pattern in my day, I setup a few buttons to help me.
As Outlook changed and evolved, I needed to make some modifications, but I optimized everything around batch processing.
Batch processing my email under load, helped me realize the power of batch processing other areas of work.
From 99 Rules to One Rule to Rule Them All
There used to be a limit to the number of inbox rules that Outlook supported.
I remember the day I hit it.
If I remember right, the limit was 99 rules at the time, and I couldn’t add my 100th rule.
I couldn’t believe it. I really, really, really needed this one more rule.
So much so, that I contacted the product team and asked if they could bump up the limit.
The answer was no, and that was a good thing. Because when would it stop…200 rules?… 300 rules?
This forced me to rethink my paradigm around email inbox rules.
And I find that it’s paradigm shifts that lead to my best, exponential productivity gains.
I ended up using a concept from security where you whitelist or focus on what you allow, instead of focusing on what you block or deny (blacklisting).
I realized all my rules were about routing emails to folders.
I took a step back and realized the most important rule was to only allow directly to me or CC me to my inbox.
I ended up extending this to what I called “My Immediate World”, where I also let a few team aliases and discussion lists in.
But this was a great exercise in defining and prioritizing and creating clarity around “My Immediate World”.
For all the rest of the email that came my way, I rout6ed to a discussions folder where I could quickly zip through.
So now, by filtering “My Immediate World”, batch processing my email, and figuring out a fast workflow, I was basically unlimited with email.
People had a lot of theories about what would work and what wouldn’t.
I like the logic of all the arguments, but I like that I used the same email system for 25 years at Microsoft, and kept a zero inbox every day, even while getting several hundred emails directly to me, every day.
Zero Email Bounce (ZEB)
In software, there is a concept called Zero Bug Bounce. I like how The Economic Times defines it:
“Zero Bug Bounce (ZBB) is that point of defect management technique when developers have fixed all the open bugs raised by the QA team and have succeeded in accessing the test teams’ defect discovery rate.”
For me, it was a similar concept in email because even though I would hit zero email in my inbox, it wasn’t long before new email came in.
So it was managing this Zero Email Bounce, or ZEB, where I realized that it was a dilemma to be managed versus a problem to be solved.
Once I looked at the problem this way, I realized that whatever I did, needed to be sustainable.
And I realized that whatever I did, needed to also generate energy versus suck my life force out, like an energy vampire.
And I constantly asked myself, “How can I enjoy the process?”
So I found ways to gamify my email management, use it as a learning platform, and use it as a practice pad to improve my writing, my reading, my speed, and my endurance.
The game of email is a game worth winning.
A Whole New World Opened Up to Me
Winning the game of email is one of the best things I ever did at Microsoft.
There is no other logistical way that I could have learned at the volume, speed, depth, and breadth that I did, than through email.
I forever thank everybody who has ever sent me an email of their best knowledge or best insights or best thoughts.
I’ve been able to learn from the best of the best in the world through simple email interviews where experts got a chance to really respond in surprisingly deep ways.
Imagine if you wanted to learn about any topic, and you sent an email out to 50 of the best of the best, and by the next day, you had at least 40 detailed responses?
There’s nothing like it, and if you are a lifelong learner, this is one of the greatest hacks you can learn in this lifetime.
I was able to learn things about the pandemic, for example, from people around the world working with top leaders and making bets on the future.
I was able to quickly learn about the most amazing innovations in the US, Asia, and Europe.
I was able to learn from real people working on real challenges to change the world.
But this was not a one way trip.
I was always very generous sharing what I learned with my network and giving back in big ways.
I often spent one-on-one time to mentor or coach people or to teach or walk through what I was learning.
In this way, I was able to create high performance innovation teams, as well as creating Agile learning communities.
And as technology improved, my approach improved, and so that’s how I became a “Super Connector” and, as HRB.org would call it, a “Boundary Spanner”.
I could easily and seamlessly work across time zones in an asynchronous way and make it easy to build living knowledge bases with learning groups at the core.
Working On Your Email, is Working on Your Work Life
In fact, I would say that working on improving my email management was actually working on improving my work life.
Organized email, reflected an organized mind. It forced me to know my priorities.
It forced me to figure out workflows.
It forced me to figure out how to think of things in systems and automation.
It forced me to pay attention to my energy and human limitations.
It helped me practice reading much faster, and writing much faster.
In fact, I used email as a way to practice blogging, writing books, and creating better guidance.
I also used email as a way to reach around the world and learn from everyone I could, from every country.
I also used email as a way to practice knowledge management to separate evergreen knowledge from throwaway or time-bound material.
I used email to practice better questions and gaining deeper insights.
I used email to learn about other people’s styles, their learning approach, and their communication and collaboration patterns.
Email is a remarkable way to master so many productivity and leadership skills.
Everybody that tells me they don’t know how to write or can’t blog or can’t write a book, I say they underestimate their daily email practice.
“Zen of Zero Email” and Coaching Teams at Microsoft How To Manage Their Email Better
Early on I became famous around Microsoft for managing email and keeping a zero inbox.
So much so that I started getting asked to coach teams on how to manage email and collaboration overload.
I underestimated the value of this at first, but then realized that if people are overwhelmed by the basics, it’s hard to change the world.
I remember one day helping one of my mentees setup a new ay to manage her email.
It was truly transformational.
The next day, she sent me a list of stats in terms of how quickly she improved all of her key metrics across the board in terms of handling bugs and her coding commitments (she was a software engineer on the product team).
By the end of the week, her stats were through the roof, and she continues to get better faster.
Her old way of managing email used to take up her entire day and wear her out.
Now she was managing her email with ease and she used her best energy for her best results to innovate in her job and make more impact, better, faster, and easier.
I ended up coaching a lot more teams in email management than I expected.
In fact, every time I got asked to coach teams on my productivity system, Agile Results, I would get asked to follow up with my Zen of Zero Inbox session.
When people learned that I kept a zero email inbox, I ended up with more coaching requests and mentor requests than I could handle, so I ended up writing more about it to scale.
I think what the masters of email know that others don’t is that mastering email is really an exercise in mastering information management.
And information management is one of the most profound ways to achieve high performance in our information age.
Getting Started with Your Email Management
When you think of your email, consider your mindset, skillset, and toolset.
Your mindset sets the stage for how well you leverage or lose to your email.
For me, I embraced a few ideas for my email mindset:
- Don’t fail at the basics. Email is a basic thing.
- Email is my single best way to learn from around the world at Microsoft.
- Working on my email is a way to improve key skills and practice on a daily basis (become a better write, a better reader, a better analyst, a better leader, a better communicator, etc.)
In terms of skillset, I used email as my practice pad for several skills:
- Reading – how to speed read, how to “get the main idea”, how to extract action items, how to turn insight into action, how to understand different writing styles, etc.
- Writing – how to type faster, how to make a point and support it, how to be more conversational, how to be more precise, how to chunk up large chunks of text, etc.
- Communication – how to recognize different learning and communication styles, how to adapt to different styles, how to embrace different styles and ways of thinking, etc.
- Action – how to factor reference from action, how to manage action outside of email systems, how to use timeboxing to limit email activity and make time for action, etc.
- Information Management – how to organize information for use cases, how to improve how fast I could find key information, how to curate, organize, and cultivate better information, etc.
- Relationships – how to create “Pen Pals” around the world, how to learn from everyone, how to help everyone by sharing better information, how to respond to different styles, etc.
- Productivity and wellbeing – how to create more clarity around priorities and focus, how to improve overall energy, how to improve speed, how to be more mindful, how to focus on having fun white doing challenging things, etc.
In terms of toolset, it really helps to learn your software platform. The best way I found is to actually ask people if you can share and compare workflows.
This is how I learned so many tips and tricks in Outlook that I would never have found any other way.
It also help to focus on your core set of primary use cases and how to optimize them. For example:
- Reading email (single, in batch or in bulk)
- Writing email
- Sending email (single, in batch or in bulk)
- Archiving an email
- Finding an email
- Managing action
- Managing reminders
- Managing appointments related to email
For anybody that hasn’t realize the potential power of email, I suggest they read Satya Nadella’s epic email to employees as an example to understand how influential a well-written email can be.
All good habits start from a vision or a sense of what good looks like. To really change your game, it helps to evolve your identity: See yourself as somebody who is great at managing email.
Even if you are not great today, imagine if you were and how that could change your life.
This is a great chance to practice your Growth Mindset, too.
Remember that you can even practice by sending yourself better emails. There are lots of reasons why you might practice this way, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.
Call to Action
- Choose to use email as one of your simplest places to practice your productivity and personal growth.
- Choose a skill to work on whether it’s reading faster, writing better, or organization information better.
- Study what you want to improve and apply it in your daily email routine. Slow down to speed up.
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