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Thomas Armitage

How To Keep Your Inbox at Zero (And Other Productivity Tips)

Thomas Armitage

I used to poke fun at my wife because she has some OCD tendencies. For example, different foods can’t touch each other on the dinner plate. For me, I just pour gravy over everything. Or what about how the bed needs to be made just right or else she can’t fall asleep? I passed out in Grand Central Station once next to a homeless dude. Slept great!

At home, not much bothers me. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized I’m very different when I arrive at the office. Maybe she and I are more alike than I thought.

Like many, I have a ritual that I follow pretty closely each day and each week. It’s this routine that helps me stay focused, get a lot done, stay organized and my keep stress levels down. This past week, a co-worker of mine wanted to chat with me about how I manage my time so well.

I started to jot down notes.

Then it dawned on me. So many things are just habitual that I never really noticed how many small things I do regularly that add up to make a big difference in the way I work. Here are the five major work habits that I’ve identified that help me with my time management, productivity, and organization. Maybe you can find benefit from these too! 

A Morning Routine

You know how some people say: “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee?” I’m pretty much the same way, but with my morning activities instead of the cup of joe. Each day, I take the first 30 minutes or so organizing e-mails I received during the night (see the next section about my e-mail inbox), reading news, checking my social media handles, and scheduling posts. Unless it’s urgent, I will ignore everything else.

This helps me find my footing on the day, be in-the-know with any industry news, and clear out my notifications, to avoid any later distractions. This doesn’t get much work OFF my plate, but does do a nice job at helping set the tone and understanding needs and expectations from clients and teammates. Most people have a routine. But if it’s more coffee-related and less work-related, it’s probably not helping you much. Develop a routine that works for you and stick to it!

My Inbox Stays at Zero

A co-worker came to my desk recently and asked me to open an e-mail that he sent that morning. I asked what it was about. He said: “I just sent it. Check you inbox.” I replied, “I have nothing in my inbox. Tell me what email you are talking about and I’ll find it.”

It’s quite a shock to some when you say that you keep your inbox at zero. I know it’s not easy for everyone, but it can be done. Here’s what I do.

I develop a mailbox folder structure that’s custom to my needs. I create folders for each client, my company-related activities and most importantly, a “Pending” folder. Every half hour or so, I’ll check my email. If it’s urgent, I respond immediately. If it’s not, I’ll drag the email to the folder where it belongs.

If it’s related to a client, for example, it goes in that specific client folder. If it is related to my company, it goes in that folder (or one of its sub-folders). And if I need to take an action on it and am in the middle of something, it goes in my “Pending” folder. Later on in the day, I’ll block out time specifically to answer e-mails, and this is where I’ll follow up on those pending items. Sometimes I can’t take an action on it right then and there, so I’ll leave it in pending or another day or two. Better than keeping it in my inbox where it will get ignored.

I bet some of you are thinking that you get way too many emails and it would be impossible to keep your inbox at zero. Here’s a few tips. First, ask your colleagues to take you off the cc of irrelevant e-mails and to stop abusing the “reply all” function. These have become habit for far too many professionals. Address the issue and nip it in the bud and I bet you’ll see a dramatic decrease in inbox notes.

Secondly, you probably get a lot of junk mail. Use a service like unroll.me to mass delete e-mail marketing subscriptions or roll those auto e-mails up into one daily message.

Finally, consider project management and collaboration tools that house internal communication. Use basecamp, Clarizen or another similar services that keep project-related discussions within the platforms and out of your inbox.

UnrollMe

Log Your Time Daily

If you work for an agency like me, you know the necessary evil of completing time sheets and having to log hours based on non-billable or billable time, and logging hours for each of your clients so you can track time, measure performance and profitability, etc. But I don’t look at time cards as a bad thing at all. In fact, I like them.

Time sheets help me understand where I’m putting my time and what I accomplished that day. Before I leave at the end of the day, I do my time sheet. I’m actually psycho about it. I refuse to go home until it’s done. And if I happen to have an urgent meeting that takes place at the end of the day, I simply do my time sheet ahead of time to make sure it’s done.

Doing these daily helps me to be accurate with my recording, not fall behind on logging hours (which then becomes a very daunting task in and of itself), and cap off my day with another point of organization. By visually seeing where I put time, and which clients were given attention, I can better prepare for my next day and the remainder of the month. Harvest and Timely are both great.

Harvest

Ongoing To-Do List 

For years, I kept a to-do list on paper. It works okay, but here’s the drawback. Things get constantly added and removed, and priorities always change. So as a result, I had to keep re-writing my to-do list, every other day or so. This went on for years. I’m not sure why I didn’t adopt a digital tool until last year, but I’m glad I did.

My co-worker introduced me to Trello, which today, is one of the most popular to-do list managers. What I love about it is that it doesn’t try to be something that it’s not. In other words, don’t expect this to replace your project manager tool or your time sheet manager tool. Trello simply helps you organize your tasks and keep you sane.

My Trello consists of five boards: “Short-Term,” “Long-Term,” “Waiting on Client,” “Waiting on Team Member” and “Other Reminders.” When I have a new task, I create a task for it and add the name and description. I then color-code it based on what type of task it is (i.e. social media, reporting, content, development, etc). You can even color code by client if you wish. Finally, I drag it to its appropriate place in the order - the higher on the list, the higher the priority.

Here’s an example. I’d create a new task: “Work on quarterly report for client XYZ.” I make it blue because it is a report. And I’ll put it at the very top of the “short term” list because it’s high priority and needs to be done today.

When I’ve completed a task, I archive it. It disappears from my board but I can retrieve it later if I need to check on my work. I also use the “Other Reminders” board to manage things to keep in mind or meeting that need to be scheduled, which previously existed as sticky notes or as inbox e-mails.

I have Trello open all day, every day, and it has worked wonders in helping keep me organized, and saves time where I do not need to handwrite new to-do lists. There are mobile apps for it too.

Trello

The Weekly Sandwich

No, I’m not talking about food, though I wish I were (I’m always hungry). What I’m referring to is an activity I do on Mondays and Fridays – so it comes full circle and helps complete my week.

On Mondays, after my normal routine, I develop my list of tasks that I’m delegating to support staff or items I need colleagues to assist with. I document them in e-mails and them off.

I then add each task to my Trello board under “Waiting on Team Members.” This helps my team understand the tasks they need to work on that week. And it helps me remember what items need to be returned by week’s end.

On Fridays, I have brief meetings with my teammates to check on progress and see what has been worked on. I see what work has been accomplished that week and understand where my priorities lie for the next week. Hold yourself and your team accountable.

By doing these activities on Mondays and Fridays, I’m able to start the week on a strong note and leave for the weekend with less stress, seeing what I finished that week and knowing that it’s all organized and well-managed.

So there you have it, my top 5 list. I’ve been exercising these tactics for a while now and there have been very few days where I leave the office with that exasperated feeling that many of us know all too well. Try to implement these, or come up with tactics that work for you, and help yourself stay productive and manage your time better.

Do you have other tips? Leave them in the comment section. I’d love to continue improving my own organizational skills!

Thomas J. Armitage is a digital marketer who helps lead content efforts at Site-Seeker Inc. He is also an adjunct professor at Utica College, where he teaches social media and content marketing.

Comments

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Colvin Warner
Colvin Warner
We keep our inbox zero by using proofhub at our work. Earlier we were using emails for discussions and sharing ideas but now proofhub is helping us a lot.
Sahil Parikh
Sahil Parikh
Trello is great but have your tried Brightpod? A content planning and project management software for marketing teams. We believe that the key to your company’s creativity, speed and success lies in following a system that documents all tasks, check lists, communications and workflows that each of your team member or group can follow.
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