Lifehack: Free or Cheap SaaS Tools I Used to Get to Inbox Zero

This article original appeared as a guest post on Scott Abel’s blog, The Content Wrangler.
 
Lately I’ve been really overwhelmed by my email inbox. This is not a new problem, but in the past I’ve been able to keep it at under a hundred emails; recently it has grown to nearly 300 and it has really begun to interfere with my getting things done.

So, last night, I took a good, hard look at what was really IN my inbox.

About 40% of the notes consisted of links sent to me by well-meaning people who thought I should check them out for various reasons. Another 30% were suggestions on how to make our products, marketing materials, services, etc. better from employees, customers, partners and other well-meaning people. Of the remaining 30%, about half were personal introductions to potential partners, customers, investors or other people with whom the authors thought I would want to connect. The other half were ‘to-do’ items of a business or personal nature, some sent by me to myself (ick!) or by other people.

I think maybe one or two messages actually consisted of correspondence — by that I mean something like the letters of yesteryear that we used to send through snail mail. It’s interesting to see how the bastardized email of today is so different from the purpose for which it was invented, but that’s the subject of a whole other article. However, while I’m digressing, it’s worth noting that

email functions brilliantly as a “better matchbox” than snail mail, but at the same time it performs really poorly at all the other functions that it’s used for today.

Email is not a contact management system, a customer relationship management (CRM) system, a link-sharing/social bookmarking tool, nor a support ticketing/issue tracking system. Not by a long shot.

The goal for me was to put all these messages that shouldn’t remain as emails into their proper home so I could deal with them appropriately while maintaining my sanity.

Now that I had performed some analytics, it was time to get organized! Here are the tools I used to clean up the mess: Basecamp, Highrise and Instapaper. Instapaper is free; however the 37signals products Basecamp and Highrise carry a small monthly fee.
[Note: They also have trial versions, but don’t expect to get too far with them since 37signals made the free versions just useful enough to show you their value without actually providing any.]
Getting from almost 300 emails to under 20 took about two hours and it was time well spent. I made one pass through my bloated inbox and took one of these actions, based on the type of email:

Email Type #1: “Hey, you should check out this link because. . . .”

Opened the link and used the “Read Later” bookmarklet from Instapaper to save the link for when I have to time to read it. If the email containing the link had something interesting in it (besides the link), I copied that into the notes field for that link once I had saved it to Instapaper. If you care to share what you’re reading/bookmarking, you can also use a del.icio.us bookmarklet for this. I find Instapaper easier though, because you can bookmark a link with one click. Del.icio.us forces you to enter tags and other metadata, which increases friction and slows down the process of bookmarking.

Bottom line: Bookmarking, per se, is a simple, rote task that shouldn’t take more than one click to accomplish.

Email Type #2: “Hey, you should make your product better by doing this. . . .”

Read the email. If there were specific action items associated with it, I created to-dos in Basecamp (under the project for the appropriate product) so that we can address them in a future release. We maintain a to-do list for each release of each product and another to-do list that serves as a backlog for each product. (Some agile tools refer to this as “the icebox.”) When we’re planning a release, we pop the most important things out of the backlog and move them into the current release to-do list.
If the to-dos were general, more thematic suggestions without specific action items associated with them, I copied the suggestions to one of our design writeboards in Basecamp. Then I responded to the email thanking them for the feedback and deleted it.

Bottom line: Product feedback and support tickets belong in Basecamp or a support ticketing system … or even a CRM, but they should never be kept in email as email is not the right tool for tracking the support ticket cycle.

Email Type #3: “Hey, you should sell to (or partner with) so-and-so. . . ”

Forward the email to Highrise’s email dropbox. Delete. Done. When I process my Highrise queue of messages, I can decide whether or not to pursue these leads on a case-by-case basis. Sales leads belong in your CRM system so that they can be tracked and managed. Email is the wrong tool for tracking the sales cycle. If you want to close sales deals and you’re using email as your CRM system, important communiqués are going to slip through the cracks and you’re going to lose business as a result.

Bottom line: E = mc2 but Email != CRM.
 
Email Type #4: “Hey, Chris, meet so-and-so. Hey, so-and-so, meet Chris”

Reply All and start the process of scheduling a good time to talk. However, there’s a bit of a hole in this, because if I then delete the message, how do I ensure that so-and-so and I actually end up talking/meeting? If you have any suggestions about how you’ve solved this problem and what tools you’ve used (besides stinkin’ email), please let me know in the comments field associated with this blog post. I guess I could use our CRM for this, but that’s kind of like using a bazooka to kill flies.

Bottom line: I don’t know what the best tool for this is, but I do know that it’s most definitely not email.

Email Type #5: To-do item (not related to a product or a lead)

Put in on my to-do list. Right now, somewhat ironically, this is an email that I keep perpetually in draft status. To-do lists are a funny thing. I’ve used Remember the Milk, Google Spreadsheets/Documents and a number of other tools, but frankly, nothing beats a text file. By keeping it as a draft email in Gmail, I always have access to it from anywhere, buy you can easily accomplish this with Google Docs too, or a number of other tools.

Bottom line: Your inbox should not be your to-do list. Use a text document, a to-do management tool or even a piece of paper and a pen. There’s something inherently gratifying about the physical, visceral action of scratching something off my to-do list with a big, fat marker (preferably a Sharpie). No tool I have encountered can come close to emulating that feeling of accomplishment.

Email Type #6: Personal Correspondence

Print it on nice paper, frame it and hang it on the wall! Seriously, these have gotten so rare, that I really don’t mind them at all.

Bottom line: This is what email was designed to do, so feel free to use it for that. Enjoy it, because your friends would probably rather update their Facebook status than send you an email. If they do send you emails (and there’s no to-do/action-item associated with them), then they’re a true friend. You should return the favor with a personal email of your own, or, if you really want to surprise them, drop a handwritten note to them in the postal mail, preferably with a designer stamp that reflects your sense of style.

There’s something really sexy about being retrosexual — try it, I guarantee you’ll get great results!

Conclusion: I didn’t quite reach Inbox Zero before my head hit the keyboard, but I am down to under 20 emails in my Inbox. Every time I hit “delete” I could feel my stress level, my blood pressure and my state of disorganization decreasing proportionately.

So, how many messages are in your inbox? What do you think of my approach? What tools and strategies do you use to manage all this email insanity? I’d love to hear your comments. Just don’t email them to me! :-)

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