In his first column for Inman, Jay Papasan, the co-author of “The One Thing,” says that while Inbox Zero is held up as a productivity ideal, it’s not necessary for streamlined email management.

“Real work is not answering emails.” — Codie Sanchez

According to a 2019 CampaignMonitor report, the average office worker receives 121 emails a day. McKinsey reported in 2012 that business professionals spend 28 percent of their time managing email.

If you work 50 weeks a year, that’s 14 weeks dedicated to email alone. We all know it’s only gotten worse.

What would you do if you could reclaim even half that lost time? Reinvest it in quality lead generation? Go on a vacation? Spend more time with friends and family? It’s up to you — but you have to reclaim it first. 

The current state of my inbox. 15,726 unread emails. | Courtesy of Jay Papasan

One of my past co-workers spotted the unread email icon on my phone and physically shuddered. He showed me his phone. He only had a dozen unread emails. I then got a sermon on “Inbox Zero” and the merits of ending each day with an empty inbox.

I didn’t agree. And I still don’t, especially the way most advocates implement it. 

Inbox Zero was popularized by Merlin Mann in 2006 on his blog 43Folders. In his 2007 Google TechTalk, he summarized his mission: The default state of your inbox should probably not be ‘sitting here until I start weeping.’”

Mann advised emailers to follow five rules, in this order: Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer and Do. The system can effectively minimize wasted time dealing with email. Unfortunately, most practitioners I’ve met are more committed to emptying their inbox than to saving precious time and attention. 

As a result, for serious entrepreneurs, Inbox Zero is almost as divisive as marshmallow Peeps. 

In The ONE Thing, we wrote about the “fear of chaos” being a “thief of productivity.” Inbox Zero is a prime example. I can’t think of a single agent who won a listing because they emptied their inbox daily. On the other hand, I know hundreds who let emails pile up and hoard listings.

Activity is not productivity. Activity is doing things. Productivity is doing your priorities. 

This is not an excuse to ghost your clients or teammates. Rather, it is a battle cry for a more productive approach to email. Here are five maxims for a more productive inbox: 

Triage email in time blocks

On average, most people check their email every 37 minutes, even though almost no one expects a response in less than an hour. Most would just love to hear back that day or the next. The exception for real estate professionals would be around lead conversion (See rule No. 5).

On my best days, I spend about 30 minutes managing email in the morning, at midday and at the end of the day. My morning goal is to address anything urgent that came in overnight and send out my priorities.

Usually, around lunchtime, I reply to more emails and answer queries related to the messages I sent out earlier. Finally, I try to tie up as many loose ends as possible before transitioning from work-time to me-time.

For many years, I’d set a timer for 20 to 30 minutes. I made it a game to see how much I could get done. Now, I just have a clock in my head.

I generally follow Inbox Zero rules. I scan for emails from family, VIPs and teammates. They get my first attention. I then review the rest, responding to some, delegating others, and delaying some by flagging for later, asking a clarifying question, or using Boomerang or a similar feature. Finally, I move spam and cold emails to my “unsubscribe” folder.

Work will expand to fill the time you give it. Don’t give email much time.

Set expectations and be consistent

If you are consistent, you can train the world. I know many top agents who set expectations in their listing remarks: “Any offers submitted after 6 p.m. will be addressed promptly the following morning.” 

Very little business actually gets done after 6 p.m, and it’s probably not the ideal time to be making momentous decisions anyway. Better to wait until the morning when you’re fresh. If it’s really an emergency, they’ll contact you in a different way

Stop archiving in folders

I used to file emails by project. Later, I filed them by the sender’s name. No system was perfect. I wasted untold time thinking about where emails should be filed. It only takes a few seconds, but those seconds add up to days and weeks over time. Every modern inbox has search capability to find any email you’re looking for with a few keystrokes.

Selectively leverage folders

If there is an exchange that is ongoing and very important, I will create a temporary folder to capture all the back and forth. When it’s done, I archive the whole folder.

I have an “Unsubscribe” folder. Everything I want to stop receiving goes there. Periodically, you can go in and unsubscribe to them all at once. Yes, it’s easier to delete them, but the seconds it takes to delete them over and over add up (see No. 3).

By the way, it is a known fact that placing the TwentyPercenter (my email newsletter) in such a folder may result in moral decrepitude, bankruptcy or, in rare cases, root canals.

Use multiple accounts

I have a work email, a personal account and a newsletter account. I lack a “sign-up” account, but it’s on the roadmap.

The work email is obvious and it gets the lion’s share of my attention. My personal email gets addressed most days. I have a reading time block in the morning. That’s when I open up my newsletter account and read emails from the writers, entrepreneurs and thinkers I enjoy learning from.

Currently, my personal email doubles as my “sign-up” email for apps and the like. Not surprisingly, that email account gets a tsunami of spam.

If part of your role is lead conversion, I recommend a dedicated inbox for leads. Speed to lead is real, especially with internet leads. When you’re in your lead conversion time blocks, reply to these emails faster than a hiccup. Most agree that when you reply in less than five minutes for internet leads, your conversion rates go way up.

Solo agents can’t be this responsive 24 hours a day and have a life. Time block it, or turn off notifications for everything but these leads. 

The ultimate hack here is getting help. When you have an assistant who has earned the right to be in your inbox, you can start assigning some of the rules to them. Freeing yourself from email and calendar duty is one of the highest ROI investments you can make. 

One question to ponder in your thinking time: Am I driving my digital life or is it driving me?

Jay Papasan is the bestselling co-author of The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, SHIFT, and The ONE Thing. He currently serves as the vice president of strategic content at Keller Williams Realty, Inc., and is the author of the TwentyPercenter, a weekly newsletter for real estate agents who: refuse to be average, insist on an ROI from their time, and want the most from their time and for their career.

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