Get Them Out of There! How I Achieve Email Inbox Zero
According to Gmail Meter, I get just over 100 emails per school day. That’s a lot of email to keep up with! Those emails range from simple requests for technical assistance to requests for Reflective Planning appointments before a teacher tries something new in a lesson and every level of engagement in between and beyond! I get a lot of email, but try to spend as little time as possible dealing with it. For a classroom teacher who is engaged in giving kids a lot of attention, there is even less time to deal with the incoming emails. So, email strategies are important for dealing with teaching life.
To figure out my email flow, I had to classify most of my emails into types of needs that come in. I came up with the following categories:
- Easy Help Wanted – teachers, admins, students, and parents all asking fairly simple questions, looking for directions, or needing information that is pretty accessible for me. These are important to me because they generally represent a student who is not able to login or access materials – which means they’re not learning optimally. They also represent teachers whose days could be going just a little bit smoother.
- Hard Help Wanted – the same group as above asking questions that require me to spend more time finding an answer or elevating to more learned or specialized help.
- Coaching Opportunities – requests to come sit with a teacher help them plan lessons or use new tools in their lessons. We call this Reflective Planning. This is my favorite thing.
- Project Emails – updates, information, beginnings and ends of projects. This might include any large scale PD planning (think Mason Learning Series), or district initiatives with which I might currently be involved. This category requires a lot of focus and creates a lot of tasks.
- Read To Lead – this includes emails from various organizations and thought leader listservs where I need to spend time reading articles or following links on websites.
With these categories in mind, I organize my priorities in email. Here’s my flow:
The 3 Minute Challenge. The Low Hanging Fruit
Anything that can be done in less than a few minutes, I do it right then. Right then! On the spot! That goes for ANY of the above categories. If I’ve taken the time to sit at my computer and crank through email I want to weed out the easy things that likely take the least focus and brainpower. Do them and get them out of there!
By “get them out of there,” I generally mean “Archive.” I delete very little email from my school Gmail account. There’s no reason to delete with essentially unlimited storage. Search functions [https://gigaom.com/2008/02/14/10-gmail-search-tips-and-then-some/] can always find the messages I might need later.
Use To-Do Lists to Organize Bigger Items
If something takes more time or focus, they become To-Do items. For me, this likely includes Project Emails or sometimes follow-ups to Coaching Opportunities. The key is, once they’re on a to-do list, get them out of there!
That’s the whole idea behind my email flow: don’t let them linger in your inbox.
More on To-Do Lists
There are so many different ways to organize to-do items that I can’t even get into all of them. However, because my email becomes a to-do list of its own, I feel like I need to present you with Google Inbox. This Google-created alternative view of Gmail functions like a to-do list. The Archive button is even replaced with a check mark. Done with that email for now? CHECK! It’s gone!
Google Inbox (which is available on the web and as apps for iOS and Android) also features Reminders. Reminders can be used to create to-do items in-line with my email. This is a great alternative to the sticky notes stuck to your screen. If a reminder has a particular due date, the same reminders can also be added to your calendar using the Google Calendar app. Curiously, the calendar-based reminders can only be created through the Google Calendar app on iOS and Android. They are not available when creating items in the web view of Google Calendar (which is serious need of a Material Design makeover).
Outside of that, there are a million different to-do apps out there. Wunderlist, Meistertask, and Things are all apps that have spent time in my workflow and occasionally come back. Many of my innovation colleagues also love Google Keep, which is a virtual bulletin board full of sticky notes. I keep a few items in there, but it’s not part of my daily flow. You might like it though, so it’s worth checking out.
Should I Use a To-Do List? Or is This a Quick Item?
Some things take more than a few minutes and they don’t really rise to the level of project to-do’s. These include the “Hard Help Wanted” items, some “Project Emails,” and even some “Coaching Opportunities.” If I don’t feel right about going to a to-do list, one of two things happen:
Option 1) In Google Inbox, I use the Pin feature. This signals that I need to come back to them. Also, there is a switch at the top that lets me focus on “Pinned” messages and reminders.
Option 2) I respond with what I can at the time and archive until I get a follow up back. Just because a project is on-going, doesn’t mean that I need to keep an email in my inbox until that project is over.
This is a small portion of my messages. My whole flow is designed to get the emails out of there, so I try not to pin too many things that will just stay in my inbox.
Read to Lead
I love to read about new ideas and fresh takes on educational trends. However, I really don’t want to deal with listservs when I’m dealing with email though. I want to get them out of there! Nonetheless, email remains a great delivery tool for interesting information in this world of social sharing.
So, when I get an article send to me, I make quick decisions. I decide based on headlines or quick skimming which articles I might read later. If I don’t want to read it, it’s archived (not deleted, someone might call my attention to it later). If I do want to read it, I add it to Pocket. I’ve known others to use Flipboard (not to be confused with the wildly popular, but unrelated FlipGrid) instead of Pocket. That’s a great app, too. Whatever the case though, I want to take those article emails and get them out there!
Other Work Hacks That Help with Email
In Google Inbox, I use their bundling feature to bundle like-tasks. If I have a bunch of email coming in asking me to make groups in Schoology for example, I bundle them together. Then, I handle related tasks all at the same time. This can be accomplished in most to-do apps as well. To me, bundling work tasks is no different than bundling grocery items into a shopping list that is separate from hardware store shopping lists.
I schedule Project Time. This is a tough one for a classroom teacher, but might help coaches and administrators. I make sure that empty slots in my calendar are purposefully curated. That means if I see a three hour chunk of time a few days off that hasn’t been filled with meetings, I grab it for myself. That precious block of time becomes my Focus Project Time. That helps cleans out those to-do items.
Sometimes I start a reply to an email just to flag it as needing attention. If I’m in typing mode then, I can go into my “Draft” mailbox and finish all of the replies that are waiting.
Now, It’s Your Turn
Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with email. This strategy is a bit messy at times, but it works for me. What are some of your best email tips? What do you do to keep all of the “incoming” under control? Add your ideas to the comments below!