Achieve Inbox Zero by Eliminating Your Inbox

Before joining the Overthink Group team, I spent about two and half years working in a corporate environment. In that job, email was absolutely vital for internal communication. I’d regularly receive more than 100 emails in a day—and many of my peers received more.

That’s why I was so intrigued when I realized how rarely Overthink uses email for internal communication—during my first month, I received fewer than five emails. In my old job, I’d have that many before getting my first cup of coffee in the morning.

We haven’t banned email for internal communication, and we haven’t established strict guidelines for its use. That leaves two potential explanations: either (a) my team was avoiding me, and my involvement with Overthink was just a delusion, or (b) the team found a way to replace email. I think it’s safe to assume it’s the latter. 

What made this possible? And how do we get things done without emailing each other?

First: what’s email typically used for, anyway?

In my experience, businesses typically use email to accomplish some of these internal tasks:

  • Sharing information, news, and ideas
  • Distributing documents
  • Getting something from someone—this could be approval on a project, a bit of data, a deliverable, an answer, anything
  • Creating a time-stamped record of something
  • Providing an easy, universal way for people to get in touch with each other
  • Helping established teams stay connected
  • Creating and maintaining profiles on other platforms

Email might not be the best way to accomplish each of these tasks individually, but it does accomplish all of them, in one platform. It’s also the easiest (and likely best) external communication method—you can use the same platform to talk with people both inside and outside your organization. Furthermore, email requires very little, if any, training to use. Nearly everyone is already familiar with it. Finally, it’s ingrained in organizational culture and workflows.

That’s the case for using email for internal communication. But—after over a month without it—I’m convinced there’s a better way, at least for some organizations.

What Overthink Group does instead

If we don’t use email to accomplish those goals, how on earth do we communicate as a team?

The majority of our internal communication and quick document sharing has shifted to Slack, a robust team-communication platform. Aspects of this tool are similar to email: choosing the right channel to message is like choosing the right people to CC, it’s easy to find everyone, and more. But it also does some things better than email: its search functionality feels natural, its link- and document-handling is impressive (try pasting in a link to a Spotify track!), there’s no spam and no inbox fighting, and it removes the need for an IM client. The Slack mobile app provides a much better experience than any mobile email client I’ve ever used, which makes it easy to stay in contact with my teammates throughout the day. And to top it all off, it’s free (with a few limitations).

We also don’t rely on email for task management. For that, we have Asana. Asana neatly removes the need to email someone to get something from them. Instead, we can quickly set up and assign a task in an interface built for task management. Gone are the days of missing something you were supposed to do (or not getting something you needed) because it got buried in a busy inbox.

We’ve also come to rely on a somewhat unexpected technology—phone calls. In many cases, a phone call is much quicker (and provides more context) than an email. If even more context is required, we move to Screenhero or Google Hangouts. In any case, immediate, direct conversation has taken the place of emails filled with long or difficult questions.

Remember, everything outlined above falls under internal communication. We haven’t gotten rid of email completely! We’ve just started using it for the things it’s truly good at, like:

  • Communicating with people outside our organization (you can reach us at our Overthink Group email addresses, like Tyrel@OverthinkGroup.com)
  • Letter-style business updates that would feel out of place in Slack

Here’s why I think this works

Like I said before, we didn’t outlaw email outright. We did, however, push communication in that direction on purpose, and we worked to develop a culture and team that allowed it to happen. Here are some of the reasons why I think it has worked out well for us:

  • We were all invested in Slack from the start. Since core team members are active on Slack throughout the day, it rewards people for using it instead of email. Going on Slack will get you a quicker response, which means you’ll come back to it—it’s a nice feedback loop.
  • We’re a small team, so there was less resistance to making a change like this.
  • Our team’s culture is informal, and as a group, we’re generally skeptical of things that are a certain way “just because that’s how they’ve always been.”
  • My hunch is that people don’t really like email, anyway.
  • All the uses we’d have for email have been replaced—there’s no real reason to keep using it for internal communication.

And here’s why I think it’s good

In our current setup, we get answers faster. We have full control over who gets notified of each message, and the more informal nature of Slack lends itself well to quick replies and less communication overhead. There’s less weight to each message—so the conversation is more fluid and more stuff gets done. Email sometimes leads to overthinking; questions like, “Are there spelling errors?” “Do I sound like an idiot?” and “Is this worth an email to them?” come up with every message. That’s great in some cases, but not in others. I appreciate the more informal, ongoing conversation that’s fostered by Slack.

I could go on about the things I appreciate about Slack—the integrations, the fact that it has a nicer design than email clients, etc.—but you know what might stand out the most? We’ve achieved the unicorn of “work inbox zero” by eliminating our inboxes.

Inbox zero

What this means going forward

For now, we’ll continue to use our fancy name@overthinkgroup.com emails for all external communication and longer form, letter-style thoughts. Slack will be our primary email replacement, and other tools like Asana and Hangouts will all provide services as well.

But here’s the thing: odds are that it won’t be this way forever. We might use email more in the future, and we might use it less. The very aspects of our culture, environment, and team dynamics that led us to pare down our email usage might lead us to another tool or back to email itself.

 

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