Getting the Message: More Tips for Achieving Inbox Zero

It’s an ideal we all should—or at least want to—strive to reach: inbox zero. Indeed, the very idea conjures an edenic work existence where we take a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty—or almost empty—at all times. The purpose of reaching such a goal is obvious: less email-incurred stresses and vastly increased productivity, and an overall more relaxed sense of workspace calm.

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But, as they said, such things are easier said than done. In previous columns we’ve addressed the concept of inbox zero and offered tips on how to get there, but there are always new things to try, new tips to help us reach this state of nirvana. And frankly, there are so many messages—too many, really—that require lengthy or well-thought-out responses due to hefty attachments or opinion-inquiring queries and which take time to answer in a fully responsible and professional manner.

Here are a few more tools from email management experts that you can add to your arsenal. Specifically, how and what to reply to message senders and how those replies can help get and stay organized and reach a level of inbox zero.

Manage Expectations
Let senders know as soon as you receive their missive that you’ll be back in touch with them is a certain amount of time, say “within 24 hour” or “by close-of-business tomorrow.” This not only lets them know you received your message but that you also are aware of the fact that a reply is required. Responding to a message a week after you received it without giving the sender a reason why gives them the sense that you didn’t feel their email was important, which can be frustrating and confusing. But establishing a timeline for a reply lets them know you’re thoughtful and you value their time, which leads to good feelings all around.

Be Open and Tell the Truth
All of us have reasons for not responding to emails immediately. Maybe we were sick for a few days, were on vacation or were up against a can’t-miss deadline that prevented us from giving a timely answer to a message. Let the sender know the reason: they’ll most likely be sympathetic to your plight and understanding of why you can’t respond quickly. And often, they’ll be much more forgiving if you take a couple days or more to get back to them.

Be Honest About Needing Help
Often, a received email isn’t one we can answer all by ourselves: it required consultation with others to give a thorough and effective response. Most offices and workplaces are based on a team mentality, and when others in the team aren’t available you may not be able to provide a complete answer to questions posed in said email. Therefore, let the sender know that you need to speak with colleagues before formulating a proper response. Again, they’ll feel that their you value their message and will be grateful you’re taking your response seriously.

When in Doubt, Say Something—Anything
If none of these reply tactics seem to fit a given situation, that’s okay. But be sure to just say something. It could be as simple as “I received your message” or “I can’t reply right now.” This tends to put the sender at ease and, at the very least, let them know their email got through and didn’t somehow get automatically relegated to a spam folder. Remember that in our email-driven world, it’s easy to get nervous and anxious and read the wrong things into delayed responses.

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