Getting Your Email to “Inbox Zero” with the Help of VAs
What is inbox zero? Let’s start with a definition:
Inbox Zero is a spiritual state akin to nirvana in which an entrepreneur, freelancer, or any professional no longer has any emails in their inbox. This means no more worry about what emails they need to follow up on, no more answering emails on vacation, and the freedom to go home without the weight of their world on their shoulders.
An exaggeration? Maybe slightly. But inbox zero is an important measuring stick to ensure that you’re managing your business life in a healthy way. Consider the statistics: 61% of workers list their heavy workload as having a “significant impact” on their stress levels, according to OurStressfulLives.com. And having an email inbox that’s chock full of reminders, distractions, and time-wasters can not only impact the amount of stress you feel, but ultimately, how productive you are as an individual.
A clear inbox, on the other hand, leaves digital space for new projects and new possibilities.
If you’re someone who’s always had a busy schedule and a heavy inbox, it might seem like you can’t get to inbox zero without some help. You may have tried systems for managing your email, only to find that you eventually lose the discipline it requires. Your inbox fills again, and you’re not anywhere close to inbox zero. You’re closer to square one.
Enter the virtual assistant. A virtual assistant with access to your inbox can not only help you achieve inbox zero, but help you design a system that will keep your inbox in check and your schedule clear. Here are some helpful ways to go about it.
Step #1: Develop a System for Evaluating Emails
The question of how to get to inbox zero isn’t about how often you delete emails. If you wanted to, you could go to your inbox, select all, and press “delete.”
But if the idea of doing something like that give you acid reflux, it’s clear there’s something more here. You have important emails there, and there’s no reason you should have to lose these important notes just to get to inbox zero.
You’ll need something akin to a filing system for your emails. Here are some tips you can incorporate right now—as well as some important ways you can outsource this work to a virtual assistant who specializes in inbox management.
- Turn emails into action items. If an email really is important, you’ll have information there you don’t want to lose. One possibility is keeping this email’s information handy, but changing it into an item on your calendar rather than an email in your inbox. For instance, don’t keep the details about a meeting in your email; move them to the calendar item that you create to remind yourself of the upcoming meeting.
- Put essential information into your CRM. Sometimes, you’ll have emails that don’t necessarily require any action, but they do have information that you should keep handy. For someone who hasn’t yet achieved inbox zero, the answer has been to keep the email and search for the relevant information whenever possible. But you’ll be far more organized if you drop essential information—such as a client’s invoicing address—into your CRM, customer relationship management software.
- Sort before doing anything else. When in doubt, sort. Sometimes, the effort of going through a messy room—or in this case, a cluttered inbox—is so overwhelming that you don’t know where to begin. For emails, you can create folders to immediately begin whittling down. Even if you start with something as simple as two folders, such as emails you need to keep and those you need to evaluate, you’ll find this act can be a major step to decluttering your inbox.
- Delete emails with threads you can find in other emails. If you have 10 emails in one thread, you don’t need to hold on to each individual email if you have a recent email that contains all of the relevant information. Switch to a “threaded” view in your email software of choice and start deleting the old emails that have already become redundant.
This is a great start for your current inbox. But what about incorporating these changes into your future habits? Set a calendar reminder to wrap up your email inbox for the day, or better yet: have your virtual assistant sort your emails at the end of the day. More on that in a minute.
Step #2: Select and Onboard a VA Who’s Good with Emails
Even if you incorporated the steps above, you may still find yourself with a stuffed inbox. Don’t be discouraged. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll never have a good system in place. It just means you need a helping hand.
A virtual assistant—especially a VA with experience in dealing with email management—is someone you can hire to tackle these problems remotely.
But some professionals can be reluctant to hand over responsibility over their inbox. Not only is it private information, but how is a VA—fresh and new to your business—going to know which emails are the important ones and which can be tossed out?
We’ll get into more detail about how your virtual assistant can help in this regard. But before you make that decision, it’s important to back up and make sure that you get the right virtual assistant in the first place. After all, their experience with inbox management can help fill in the gaps in your own strategies. Here are some ways to ensure that you’re hiring the right VA:
- Look for inbox management experience. If your goal is to get to inbox zero, hire a VA who has worked with business inboxes like yours before. You may find that they have the knowledge of the proper strategies and tools to employ so you barely have to lift a finger—or, if you don’t pay attention at this stage, you may find that they’re not up to the task.
- Look at their ancillary skills. There are skills related to inbox management that you should also consider. Strong verbal and written communication skills are vital to anyone who wants to manage an inbox. You should also look for candidates who have strong concepts of what it takes to organize an office.
- Experience with your specific tools. If they’re going to organize your inbox, you want to make sure that they also use the tools you use. Someone who’s not familiar for Outlook, for example, is not going to be able to log in to your account and smoothly get you to inbox zero without some problems.
Once you’ve done the proper vetting, you should bring someone aboard. Let them know about your goal (inbox zero) and ask them for their recommendations for de-cluttering your inbox.
This is also the time to gather your relevant information so you can equip your VA to
- Login information: Username, password, etc.
- Account information for any other relevant accounts, such as your customer relationship management (CRM) software. Make sure to also include any cloud storage login information you need.
- Calendar/scheduling information for accounts like Calendly or Google Calendar to make sure there’s still a connection between your email and your calendars.
- Instructions about how you want your email organized.
This is enough to get an experienced VA up and running. You may also start them on a “trial” period in which they don’t make any major changes to your inbox without running it by you first. However, as you evolve in your relationship with your VA and learn to trust their decisions, you’ll want to give them more autonomy.
Step #3: Develop a Blueprint for Achieving—and Maintaining—Inbox Zero
Now that you have an idea of the best habits to practice and how to hire a VA who can help you achieve inbox zero, it’s time to get serious about whittling your emails down.
Let’s look at some strategies you can use to immediately take control over your inbox with the help of your VA.
The “Four Folders” Strategy
Earlier, we mentioned that simply sorting your emails into folders—even if it’s just two—can be a major step forward. But you might want to start more aggressively than that. You should consider what’s known as the “Four Folders” strategy, in which you’ll have your VA go through your entire email inbox and place everything in one of four folders:
- Action required: These are the emails that still need action or follow-ups, and need to be in your inbox for that to happen.
- Awaiting response: These emails may not have anything impending yet, but they’re still relevant emails that you’ll want to keep handy until the other user responds.
- Emails with tasks assigned to the VA (such as scheduling something or taking down customers’ information)
- Archival without deletion. This allows you to clear out the inbox while still keeping information handy for easy searching in the archive.
Some people might consider this a “five folders” strategy, if you consider deleting an email to be a fifth option.
The “Instant Label” Strategy
Even if you effectively whittle down your inbox with the above strategy, you’ll need something in place for your future emails.
One such strategy is to instantly label any email you receive. If you give your VA access to your inbox, you can have them review the labels at the end of the day and forward each email to its appropriate location—whether that’s delegating it to an employee, sending a quick reply and scheduling a meeting, or simply archiving the email.
Why bother with labels? Because at a certain point, you’re still going to need to review your emails. Those emails you don’t delete should have a second pair of eyes—which is where your VA can enter the picture. Rather than sit down and organize your emails at the end of the day, you can simply go home. The VA can then spring into action and review your emails. They can use your cues for what to do with each email, and then present a list of any emails that didn’t have any clear answers for you the next day.
Batching Your Email Reviews
Distractions are costly. They eat into your time and interrupt your creative flow. But you also want to flag any important email as soon as you have it. So how do you reconcile the two?
The best bet is probably in batching: having your VA handle much of the email review for you so that you only have to check it infrequently. You’ll still be an active participant in your inbox, but you’ll be able to review it at your own discretion.
It may take you some time to set up this system with your VA, but the time you save by only checking your email intermittently can be invaluable, especially if your work requires periods of intense concentration away from the inbox.
Inbox Zero: A Better Way to Run Your Day
With a VA, you can not only achieve inbox zero, but maintain a system for keeping inbox zero a regular way of life. Make sure that you consult with your VA about the best tools you can use and strategies to employ until you’ve whittled a system of your own that keeps you in the loop without keeping you tethered to your desk.