Unicorn Email UNLOCKED: How to Achieve an Empty Inbox

DISCLOSURE: This is the first time I've blogged about my behind-the-scenes business processes, so I want to be up front that this post contains referral links to Google G Suite and Boomerang. I am compensated if you sign up for the services through these links. That said, I seriously use these tools every single day and they are invaluable to my business.

Yesterday, I shared a sweet, sweet screenshot on Facebook - showing zero emails in my inbox:

 Inbox: Zero. Nada. Empty. As in seriously  no mail . Yes, really.

Inbox: Zero. Nada. Empty. As in seriously no mail. Yes, really.

The comments cracked me up.

  • A super rad wedding DJ: "Stares at this confused..."
  • One of the most high-achieving wedding planners in Dallas: "Tell me what this feels like? It must feel like unicorns and rainbows."
  • A devilishly detail-oriented, well-respected venue manager: "Are you a wizard or something? That's magic."
  • One of my favorite florists-turned-event-rentals-boss-lady: "Please help me ... I'm drowning in emails!"

As crazy or impossible as it sounds, my policy is to end every single day with a clean, clear, refreshingly empty email inbox. I call it my #ZeroInboxPolicy.  It's something I've been doing for almost a year, and it has been the best thing ever for my business. I love the feeling of ending each day knowing I have a clean slate. It frees me to start on an interesting or impromptu project with a clear mind (like this blog post!), or I can turn everything off and spend quality time with family. I'll actually get to experience an empty email inbox for the first time this holiday season. I'm really looking forward to enjoying the moment without hundreds of messages hanging over my head.

Let's flash back into email history, shall we? I remember when I was a pre-teen and AOL basically ate up every living moment of my life. If I wasn't on AOL Instant Messenger, I was working on my 'zine. That's right: Meggie Francisco had a 'zine. It focused on female-fronted punk/rock/ska/riot-grrrl bands like Save Ferris, No Doubt, Hole, and Bikini Kill, as well as makeup and hair tips that would be fairly questionable in today's YouTube-tutorial world. Somehow I even got some 90's beauty company like Hard Candy to mail me a huge box of cool products for a 'zine subscriber giveaway. To this day, I feel sorry for all the poor subscribers who received my not-properly-BCC'd mass emails.

Now that you know how cool I really am (like the existence of this post wasn't enough to convince you), at this time in my life, I only cared about three special little words: "You've got mail!" In AOL times, getting an email was the bomb. It was addictive. In the 90s, I couldn't just open an Instagram app, post a photo, and refresh repeatedly to see the "likes" go up. Immediate gratification was still nearly two decades away. No, I logged on to 56k dial-up (if I was lucky) and waited for the AOL man to tell me those short, sweet words I longed to hear.

After I sold my awesome 'zine to Yahoo (kidding, unfortunately), email became less exciting and more of a chore. However, the addiction remained - which was unsafe considering the amount and importance of info transmitted via email increased many times over. But I soon found I wasn't alone. When I entered the corporate world, everyone I knew had an overflowing inbox that they checked impulsively all day long. So, I did the same. For a while, that was normal. But it created looming stress as the emails grew into a horrible, never-ending to do list. Even when I left jobs and started new ones, the fresh, clean, beautifully empty inboxes quickly turned into cluttered death traps. Before I knew it, "inbox zero" seemed like a magical, impossible fairy land. I was resigned to just live with it. Until one day, I decided I just couldn't do it any more.

It took a while to figure it out, but tackling my email inbox and setting a #ZeroInboxPolicy has been one of the best things I've done for my client service and for my business overall, because it's helped me focus on what's most important. An empty inbox sounds like a lame win, but it actually gives me more power to call the shots in my business, as you'll hear more below. 

In the interest of helping all my beloved wedding industry friends, and maybe even some of my overworked clients, to experience the "rainbows and unicorns" feeling of a clean email inbox, this was my process to get there:

  1. I decided that my inbox would never again be my to-do list.

    Say it with me: "Treating my inbox as a to-do list puts me in a reactive state of mind." That's not a way to live, and certainly not a way to run a business! 

    Of course, incoming emails contain questions I need to answer and important information to note for my events. I can't just ignore and delete the emails, or sign offline like a hermit. So yes, those emails must be a part of my to-do list. They may even take up a full hour or 2 (or 3!) of a given day sometimes. But my inbox is not allowed to BE my to-do list.

    My clients hire me to complete tasks that go way beyond the simple demands that show up in my email. I'm talking vital projects like developing unique style visions and researching venues in new markets. If I let my inbox manage my day, I belittle myself as a professional, and I will never get the important things done. Instead, I create my own separate daily to-do list. Checking emails gets one sad, pathetic little line on the list. That's it.
     
  2. I cut myself some slack and clicked un-subscribe. A lot! 

    As an entrepreneur, it's natural to always want to improve. I'm never satisfied with my business. I want to improve the way I design tablescapes, or care for clients, or work with vendors, or . . . the list goes on and on. I always want to get better! As a result, I subscribed to more workshop alerts and improvement blogs than I could possibly absorb. Somewhere along the line I convinced myself that daily emails with tips and tricks would be a great way to continuously improve my business.

    I was so wrong. After I took time to think it through, I realized this habit induces loads of guilt. Even if I could attend every workshop and read every article, to do so would be a gigantic distraction from serving my clients. I decided to recognize that I am a self-aware professional, and if I truly need to improve something specific, I can seek out resources when I have the time to do so (in my off-season).

    Therefore, I unsubscribed from nearly all the business-improvement email blasts. It freed my heart and my inbox.
     
  3. I developed a search-friendly subject line habit. 

    I advocate filing everything away - forever! - once it has been properly addressed. But this idea gives most people anxiety. They ask, "How will I ever find the email again if I need it?" To that I say, "How will you ever find the email in your inbox with 12,456 emails anyhow?"

    No matter the level of inbox chaos, I've found the first step to easily finding the emails of yesterday is to start using powerful subject lines today. For me, including the couple's names (I like first names - I do see other vendors use last names) and the relevant topic is a bare minimum for my subject lines. I am so nutty about this that I will sometimes add info to other people's subject lines when I reply to the email threads they started. ;D

    Note: Some wedding pros like to use one email chain per client, per vendor, for the entire event process. The idea of having to scroll back in history through such a long thread gives me the hives, but hey, different strokes for different folks. Being a flexible team player is often more important than being an organizational freak. ;)

    Here are some examples of my subject lines:
    • Marsha/Greg - 10/8/16 - Band Schedule
    • Florist Quote for Mary and Johnny - Vendor Name
    • Vendor Meal Q's - Susie/Adam - 11/22/17 Wedding
       
  4.  I started filing away all emails - forever! - in a thoughtfully planned folder system.

    I found once I'd done the work of getting my subject lines in order, or at least including relevant, searchable info in every email body, I could always find what I needed later on. However, 99% of emails need not be found ever again, I promise. Once I started filing everything away, I found peace.

    Structuring a smart folder system makes searches even easier. For instance, if I need to find an email about "music" that pertains to a specific client, I now only have to search in that client's folder, which eliminates gobs of irrelevant search results.

    My folder structure starts with general business folders vs. client folders. Within clients, I segment by relevance (Past/Current/Prospective client). I then title each client folder with the event date (YY-MM-DD to help order the folders) and client names. Here's a very basic example of how my folder hierarchy looks:
     
    • Business
      • Accounting
        • Marketing
        • Vendor Relations
        • Styled Shoots
          • 18-01-15 - Thailand
    • Client
      • Current Clients
        • 16-11-07 - Ashley and Joe
        • 17-01-17 - Marsha and Greg
        • 18-02-18 - Pat and Parker
      • Prospective Clients
        • 00-00-00 - Oakley and Emmerson
      • Complete Clients
        • 15-11-05 - Landry and Frankie
           
  5. I moved my business email client to Gmail/G Suite (Click for free 30-day trial).

    When I signed up, this service was called "Google Apps for Work." Now they call it "G Suite" (For having a gigantic marketing team, Google is kinda lame at branding. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Google+ / Google Pages / Google My Business / GoogleJustLetMeListMyBusinessCorrectlyDangit!!!). 

    But basically, for $5/month per email address, you can access your email using Gmail as your email client - even if your .com is hosted somewhere else like Squarespace, Go Daddy, or BlueHost. There is actually only one reason I initially did this:

    Must. Have. Out-of-Office Auto-Responder. - I'm a Mac user. Outlook for Mac requires some kind of high-level tech knowledge to set up something called "rules" in lieu of simple out-of-office messages. That's not acceptable for my business. As a wedding planner, my clients and vendor teams really need to know not to expect responses when I'm out for a wedding or holiday. I can't just disappear, and I also can't struggle for hours to set up a basic out-of-office message. Eventually I said, "Forget this noise!" and moved to Gmail as my email client. Gmail's vacation responder is super easy to use, and now I don't worry when I'm out of the office.
     
  6. I installed the Boomerang add-on for Gmail (Click to get Boomerang for free).

    Boomerang is the second reason I'm so happy I have Gmail, and it's exactly what it sounds like. It's an integrated Gmail app that banishes emails but makes them come back to you at a more convenient time. When an important email hits my inbox, I ask myself: can I realistically address this today? If yes, I commit to handling it, and then I file it away forever before the day is over. If I can't get it done today, I Boomerang it.

    You can use Boomerang for free up to 10 times per month. If you get super Boomerang-happy (you might - I did!), for $5/month, you get unlimited uses. Here are some instances when this service kicks butt for me:
     
    • Dealing with sales pitches on my terms. Maybe I'm somewhat interested in advertising with a publication, but it's not the right time or I haven't figured out next year's marketing budget. I respond to the email to let the sales rep know thanks-but-not-now, and ask Boomerang to re-send me the message on X date at X time so I can look into it later.
       
    • Postponing networking opportunities to more appropriate times. Maybe I really want to meet with a new vendor for coffee, but it's October and I'm 100% focused on wedding execution. I respond to the vendor to let them know I care about getting to know them better and have set an alert to follow up with them on X date. And then I really do. It makes me look like the most thoughtful wedding planner ever, which is great because I like people to feel special (thanks, technology!).
       
    • Scheduling emails when things get hairy. Let's say a darling client just isn't getting a wedding task done, and it's starting to worry me. Boomerang allows me to pre-schedule regular reminder emails. I just note in these scheduled emails, "Hi Client! This is a pre-scheduled email reminder to work on XYZ. Here are some resource links to help you: ABC. If you have already completed this task, please disregard this email, and thank you!" Magically, my clients get great service, and I get to focus on more productive things than nagging!
       
  7. I decided if I don't have the heart to Boomerang an email, I just say, "No."

    Having a tool like Boomerang clarifies priorities for me. It forces a decision when I otherwise might leave a door open when it's just draining my much-needed energy. If I'm getting a twitch in my eye as I start to Boomerang something, it's a sign the matter should not be on my plate now or later. So, I take a moment to thank the person and honestly respond that the correspondence is not consistent with my current priorities. Then, delete (Ahhhh, doesn't that feel good?).

    Some pros say that it's best to just delete and forget emails like this, and I see their point - why waste time responding to someone whose message is not valuable to me at the present moment? However, I still do my best to respond to almost every email that comes in. For one thing, taking a moment to be kind and honest about my priorities actually helps to prevent an inflow of future follow-up from a person who may believe their email just went to spam - so it helps my email management.

    But more importantly, from a basic decent human standpoint, I believe that everyone deserves respect, and the person who may not be the right partner today may be a valuable connection in the future. The "annoying" sales rep working at a low-end publication could one day be making editorial decisions for a high-end blog. The budding photographer who is inexperienced today may be tomorrow's Erich McVey or Jose Villa. These people will surely remember the wedding planner who responded with a kind or sharp tongue when they first got started, or the planner who never bothered to respond at all. It's important to protect my time (after all, I can never get more of it), but I think most people really appreciate the 5 seconds it takes to thoughtfully acknowledge them.

Cleaning up my email inbox has been one of the best things I've done to clear my plate and provide better service to my clients. Practicing solid technology habits and getting organized for more efficient workflow is not a typical part of new-hire orientations or basic education, but as entrepreneurs struggle to balance their many demands, taking the time to analyze and improve our habits can have a major positive impact on our businesses. I hope you find these tips helpful as you work to achieve that unicorn-status empty inbox.

Happy wedding planning!
- Meggie Francisco