In-box Zero Case Study: How I got my teacher email to zero in 4 easy steps

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
In-box Zero Case Study: How I got my teacher email to zero in 4 easy steps

Today I'm going to show you how I lowered my teaching stress by clearing out my Inbox, and then maintaining my email Inbox at zero each day. Teaching can be a very rewarding profession, and a very stressful profession. One challenge teachers have to deal with is keeping up with email. As teachers, once our students arrive at school we have a limited amount of time to check our email, because we have children, and young adults that need our attention. In addition, our Inbox is full of  important information from administration,  parents, or other correspondence that teachers can not ignore. One day while running and listening to a Podcast I heard the term "In-box zero." At the time, I'm afraid to admit, I had over three hundred emails in my Inbox and had missed a couple of important parent emails. I was feeling guilty and embarrassed. At the time I would check my email, read an email, but leave it in the Inbox so I would remember it later. The problem was that my email would grow everyday, and finally it became unmanageable. I had to change my method and the solution came that day. Almost everyday I run, and listen to a variety of Pod casts. During one of these runs I was listening to an interview with Merlin Mann,, and he was talking about how he handles email and that one of his goal is to have his Inbox at zero emails each day. I don't remember many details, but by the end of the run I  was fascinated with the idea of ending each day with zero emails in my Inbox. I also combined this idea with an old productivity idea of handling all materials only once. That night I opened my email and went to work on my goal of achieving Inbox zero .Since that evening ,I have ended each day with zero emails in my Inbox and it has greatly lowered my email stress. I call my method the "Stress less at Zero Email Method,"and here is my step by step guide.

My actual Inbox:

InBox at Zero

Step 1 Clear out your email. I don't mean to just hit delete, but go through what you currently have in your Inbox and empty it. This first step took me around two hours, but I had almost 300 emails in my Inbox. In order to clear out my Inbox I had to set up some folders. Setting up folders in your email is step 2. My school uses outlook so it was easy to set up folders. Below is a YouTube video link if you need to learn how to do this. I also included a link for Gmail. I tried to keep my folders to a minimum because I figured it would be less confusing, but you can create as many, or as few folders as you need.  I created the following following five folders, Parents, School Information, Math, Special Ed, and Personal. When you delete the emails you don't have to immediately empty trash or you can archive your emails. My rule of thumb is that I keep all emails in trash that are younger than one month. I delete all older emails. This way I have a little back up just in case I deleted something very important.

Setting up folders in Outlook 

Setting up folders in Gmail

Step 3. Next, I started sorting emails, and made a point of only handling each email once. Once I looked at the email I had six options:
1. Reply and delete.
2. Reply and move to a folder in order to reference later.
3. Delete.
4. Move to the task folder, and add any necessary notes to my task list, reply if necessary.
5. Place the date on my calendar and delete.
6. Place the date on my calender, and move the email to a folder for future reference.

Step 4. If the email required a future action, I would make a note on my task list, or place the event on my calendar with a note about where I moved the email. For example, I received an email that said, "I need your homeroom roster." If I was pressed for time I would reply with a short email, and place the task on my task list. I have found that the system works best if you complete a task required from an email if the task can be done quickly, otherwise put it on your task list. By completing these quick tasks immediately it helps prevent the task list from growing out of control. A helpful rule of thumb is if you can complete the task in two minutes or less then complete the task, otherwise put it on your task list. One important item when using "Stress Less at Zero Email method" is that it is very important that you check your task list every day. Just make it a habit to quickly check your task list each time you check email. Another option if you don't like switching to the task list is to set a folder titled "Urgent To Do" and move emails that must be completed into this folder.

Below are several example emails and how I handle the email.

Email 1: From Band: The band will be going to Disney April 17.  Here is the list of students going.
Quickly reply "Thanks!"
Open Calendar and put the trip on my calendar with a note saying, "Band list in School Information Folder"
Move email to school information folder.


Open Calendar and create an event on April 17.  Copy all the names using Control A, Control C and pasting the list into the calendar using Control V.  Save.  If you think you need a reminder on the list a day or two before they leave, using the reminder drop down and set for 1 day reminder.

Email 2: Retirement options from Cigna

Email 3: From parent: Question about John's Math grade.
Reply  Thanks for the email. Attached is John's grade sheet.  John is a delightful student,but seems to struggle on tests. I have review sessions for each test that would help John.  Thank you for your support.
Move email to Parent folder.

Email 4. From counselor: Parent meeting March 23
Reply.  I will be in attendance.
Place on my calendar with a note reminding me to print grade sheet for student on March 22.
Place on my task list to print grade report.
Delete email

Email 5 From Math department:  I need a list of your top students on the Algebra Test by April 4
Move email to task list.
Because this is an important task I will set a reminder one day ahead just to make sure I don't forget.
Delete email
If you don't know how to set reminders these links will help.

How to set a reminder in Outlook

How to set a reminder in Gmail

On a daily basis, I open my email, look at the email title, and then choose which action needs to occur. It is quick, effective, and has helped me keep my Inbox at zero.

If you are an Outlook or Gmail  expert, I'm sure you could add additional short cuts. The key to "Teacher Inbox Zero Email Method" is to adopt the attitude of handling each email once. For each email you have six options, choose an option, and then you are done with the email. I have listed the six options that I use, but you can create your own actions as long as they allow you to handle each email only once.

Finally, I receive between twenty-five to thirty emails a day, which is not a huge volume, but as a teacher I have a limited amount of time during the school day to check it. I have been able to keep my Inbox at zero by checking my email first thing in the morning, briefly at the start of planning, and occasionally at night. I now feel organized and ahead of my email instead of feeling overwhelmed..

Reduces stress by moving from being reactive with your email to being proactive
Saves time by being very efficient
Improves parent and staff PR by replying to emails quickly
Improves your organization and reduces the number of emails that you inadvertently miss in your email.

If you fail to move emails to folders, the task list, or your calendar you can lose important information.
In your desire to get to a empty inbox, you can fail to give emails proper attention.

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