Before the start of every New Year, I vow to become a better version of myself. Some years it’s been about working out more and eating better, while others have been about practicing better self-care. Now that we have entered 2018, I have been practicing a much needed New Year’s resolution that affects both my personal and professional lives on a daily basis – processing my inbox.
Shortly before the end of the year, I stumbled upon a GoogleTechTalk video by a man named Merlin Mann to a group of Google employees about a concept he called Inbox Zero. Now, while this video is almost 11 years old, the concept of Inbox Zero is still very practical and something I believed could help me with my overflowing email inbox, my productivity and, ultimately, my sanity.
So what is Inbox Zero?
Inbox Zero is the concept of thinking about your email differently – a way of managing your inbox to keep it empty (or almost empty) at all times. It is based on the fact that your time and attention are finite and that other’s demands on our time and attention is infinite. Just think about the amount of emails you receive on any given day; all requesting our valuable time and attention. There is (and never will be) an end to these demands – but there is something you can do to better handle them – and that is where Inbox Zero comes in.
Could Inbox Zero be for you?
Think about your own personal or professional inbox and answer the following questions:
- Do you find yourself checking your email regularly (but not doing anything with the emails you find there)?
- Do you use your inbox as a to-do list?
- Do you find that you “live in your inbox”?
If you answered ‘YES’ to any of these questions, then my friends, you might want to make my New Year’s resolution yours too. So how do you do it?
Get a system
The key to Inbox Zero is to get a system (any system that works for you) but keep in mind two things – it has to be simple and it has to be repeatable. The goal you are trying to achieve with developing your system is to ensure that it is about managing your actions when you are dealing with your inbox. This ensures that both your time and attention are being mapped so that you are not wasting time “checking” your email, but rather processing it.
Isn’t processing just a fancy word for checking? Not at all! When Mann talks about processing your email, he is alluding to 5 actions you should take when you are dealing with an email. These actions are the answer to the question “So what?” that you should be asking yourself any time you are processing your emails.
Delete (or Archive) – Deleting is pretty self-explanatory, but some have still not figured it out. If you receive an email you don’t need or have received the information you need and no longer need the email detailing this information, delete it! There is no use in having that email take up space in your inbox and having to re-read it again and again.
Delegate – If you receive an email that would be better suited for someone else to action, you can delegate it. For me, I’m not a boss so I generally don’t delegate work to other people, but sometimes I do receive work by email that requires the action of someone else before I can complete my part (this is where I would delegate that work to the other person).
In order to ensure that that action has been taken, I will put that email into a folder called “To Follow Up” and will set a reminder in my calendar to the date I requested the action to be completed or to an appropriate amount of time to follow up (if I don’t hear back).
Respond – If you receive an email that you can respond to right away (in less than 5 minutes), then respond to it. Mann calls this “keeping the ball in motion”.
Defer – This action can be tricky because it is normally what leads us to have inboxes that have thousands of read and unread emails. If you receive an email and can’t deal with it right now, either because you need more information or can’t answer it at this very second, you would put it into a folder called “To Action”.
As part of your system, you will check this folder at specific times during the day (and not every time you receive a notification) so that you can handle the emails that are in this box – and try to empty it each day.
Do – If you receive an email that requires you to do something that you can do right now – then do it right now. This could include creating a calendar event in your calendar for a meeting or bringing someone a physical file you have on your desk. Then as soon as you’re done doing that action, delete the email!
These five actions are what Mann suggests for his system, however, as mentioned earlier, you can create whatever action words you want (or need) to help you develop your system (as long as they are both simple and repeatable). The idea of creating these actions is to help you to “liberate activity out of your inbox” and to stop using your inbox as a to-do list.
Processing the Habit
Now just like anything, in order for this to become something you are able to do, you will have to develop the habit. So what are some good ways to keep you on track?
Close the damn email
Yes, you read that right – close your email client when you are working. Sound terrifying? I will admit that it was quite scary for me when I first started doing it. But the benefits were amazing.
You see, I am a notorious notification checker (on my phone, in my inbox, on my social media). Every time my inbox would receive a new email, I would instinctively check the message. Now, while this is helpful to quickly process the message, if I’m in the middle of working on something else, I have lost focus and my place in what I was doing. This means it will take me time to refocus and get back on task – not very productive now is it?
Another thing you can do (if you’re too scared to close the client), is to turn off the notifications of a new email in your inbox. This way you can still keep the client open and not be as tempted to check the inbox.
Create some rules
If you have signed up for email alerts for various work-related emails (conferences, webinars, etc.), you can create rules that will move these emails into a specific folder based on a few different criteria (sender, domain, etc.). This could be helpful so that you are not wasting time sifting through emails that you don’t need to look at right away (and can look at every couple of weeks).
At the same time, if you receive emails from your boss and you know these emails are things you need to action, you could create a rule to automatically move these emails into your “To Action” folder.
As mentioned before, create rules that work for you – but don’t overdo it!
Remember – Finite Time/Attention
For me, the point Mann drove home is that my time and attention are finite. I have to remember that my inbox is just a medium and should not dictate what I am working on and when. I should be in control of what I want to work on and what I am spending my finite time and attention on.
What do you think about Inbox Zero? Do you think I’ll be able to keep my New Year’s Resolution? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.