The Empty Inbox - Email Nirvana for Small Business Communications

If you're reading this, you are most likely a small business owner or employee and you feel that you have too many messages in your inbox. You're feeling overwhelmed by it all, and you're afraid that the sheer mass of your small business communications might be affecting your ability to do your job, which is probably not centered on email, or the productivity involved in answering it. Eventually, you actually need to do the things you talk about in your emails, the things that you started your small business to do. But at the same time, there are important things that come at you in your email, and you just can't ignore them. There are customer orders, requests for support, business development requests, questions from your employees, and all manner of other necessary tasks. So, how do you manage this volume of email while still getting everything else done in the limited time you have every day? 

Through the course of this article, you'll learn some email productivity tips that should help you feel more in control of your small business communications, and you'll feel less like there's something lurking in your inbox that will ambush you later when it has gone undone for too long. Much of this information on email productivity comes from the David Allen's "Getting Things Done" program, Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" system, as well as the book Take Back Your Life! Using Microsoft Outlook 2007 to Get Organized and Stay Organized. If any of this article gives you hope on the future on your small business communications, I highly recommend you do further reading, and there are some links at the end of this to help you take the next steps on increasing your email productivity.

Better Email Productivity Equates to the Treasured Zero Inbox State

To be honest, if you get a lot of email, you probably won't ever get to a Zero Inbox state, but it should be your goal. Email is merely a medium that enhances small business communications. It is the one place that people use to try to interact with you. But you can't let it control your life or your small business. So, try to only check email every couple of hours or more. And when you do check email - make sure you have some time to give your email the appropriate attention. You don't want your Inbox to become your filing system for all of your small business communications, orders, and whatnot because that is what leads to the feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control. When you have mastered your inbox (and subsequently your email productivity), you will be able to spend more time thinking about growing your small business with communications that streamline processes, or about taking that vacation with your family, or whatever else it is you haven't had time to think about.

So, when you do open your Inbox - and you are faced with a bunch of new emails - what do you do? Everything in your inbox should be something you have not yet decided what action to take, and you should only have to read (and process) each email one time. You need to "Process to Zero," or as closely as you can. What is "processing" in this context? It is the "so what" for each thread you open, where you convert each message into an action in order to reach greater email productivity. What does this email mean to you, and what is it ultimately asking of you? Based on the answer to that question, you need to do one of four things to each email you process:

1. Delete/archive
2. Delegate
3. Defer (i.e. read it later)
4. Do (response will take longer than two minutes, but you still need to do it)

So, how do you know which to do? 

Taking Action to Streamline Small Business Communications

Delete/Archive: If there is no definable action (or you have already taken the necessary action on any small business communications you've received), you need to delete the email or archive it if the content is something you know you will need to refer to later on (I put them into an "@Archive" folder in Outlook 2007, because that keeps that folder at the top of my folders list and easy to see later). In any case, deleting the vast majority of emails that serve no future purpose will significantly boost your email productivity, allowing you to move on to other tasks.  

Delegate: If there is a definable action that someone else needs to take, delegate the action to someone else by forwarding it to them and clearly spelling out what action you expect them to take. Then, you need to either delete or archive that email, because it no longer belongs in your Inbox.

Defer: If the email requires a task that will take longer than two minutes - you need to defer the action (and its associated email). I do this by moving the email into an "@Action" folder. The most important thing here is that you make sure that you get to the things in the "@Action" folder in a reasonable amount of time. You can't forget about them and let them go undone, or you will stop trusting, and then stop using, the system and be right back where you started.

Do:  If the email contains an action that requires LESS than two minutes to complete - you should just go ahead and do that action and delete or archive the email so you get the item off your plate. You'll rack up a lot of "small victories" this way and feel more productive, because you will actually be more productive when dealing with your small business communications. Don't say to yourself "I'll just leave this in my inbox and get to it later;" take the action immediately to see your email productivity rise.

A couple of related email productivity tips from the Download Squad folks -

1. "If you don't need to read it now, it shouldn't be in your inbox."
2. "If you've already responded to it, it shouldn't be in your inbox."

Remember, you want to minimize the number of times you have to read the same email.  Make a decision about it the first time you read it, and just get it over with. It doesn't help you at all to leave it in your inbox just so you have to come back and do the same thinking all over again. That's a waste of your time and a serious drain on your overall email productivity.

Hopefully, these small business communications tips have gotten you started down the path of a cleaner inbox and a cleaner mind. The less stuff you have to keep track of in your head, the more you can use your head for productive thinking, like how to grow your small business.

Increasing Email Productivity References

The following links provide more information on small business communications.


About the Author

Jon Harmer is responsible for driving adoption and innovation for Cbeyond's messaging and collaboration solutions. Since joining Cbeyond, a leading small business communication and technology provider, in January 2008, he has made a significant impact on the organization, leading a team to successfully launch the Hosted Microsoft Exchange email application to Cbeyond customers, which outpaced projected initial adoption rates by 50 percent, and designing a custom software installer that is set to become Cbeyond's first patented application which enables customers to easily install and configure email clients. As a result of these accomplishments, Cbeyond was nominated for the Microsoft Hosting Solutions Partner of the Year Award in 2009. Jon earned his undergraduate degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology with a B.S. in Management with a concentration in Information Technology. In 2006, Jon graduated from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University with a MBA in Marketing and Organizational Management. For more information on Cbeyond, please visit
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