There has been plenty of discussion about Inbox Zero since Merlin Mann first presented the concept and yet it’s still relatively unknown as to what it actually is and how to achieve it. Merlin has blogged that Inbox Zero is not about emptying your inbox. That it is not about waiting for email to arrive so that you can do something about. He writes that it is a state of mind. A sense of freedom. That you are not your inbox.
And yet how does one free themselves from the daily flood of emails to be able to focus on what is real work? By abandoning what’s happening in the Inbox the dam will eventually burst and drown you in information. Here follows one approach to control the flood, to filter it off into a number of smaller, manageable channels.
Email is a tool, not your brain
For this to work it’s incredibly important to constantly remind yourself that email, and your inbox, are tools, they are not another part of your brain. Email should not dominate your attention. Why? Think about the majority of the emails you receive and ask yourself:
- Has this message changed the way I think?
- Have I learnt something valuable from this email?
- Would I be or do anything different if I didn’t receive this email?
Chances are that for the most part you have acknowledged that email doesn’t change how you think, what you learn, or how to act. So why then are we so hopelessly devoted to it?
A time and a place for email
In the hyper-connected world we now live in and with mobile devices always at hand that instantly alert us to new email it can be difficult to create the distinction between doing something of value and checking email messages. Some people are of the mindset that checking email is doing “work”. Wrong. Previously I’ve discussed how to get out of the inbox trap and some ways to spend less time filtering through your email, but there is more to using email properly and deciding what to do with each email in your inbox.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that email is not an “always on” channel. Don’t check your email as the first thing you do in the morning. Each afternoon setup a list of things you need to accomplish the following day. The next day attack the first item on that list, not your email. Email is a black hole for your time.
As you go through each item on the list, disable your email client – go “offline”. This works well for most desktop email applications such as Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail and Mozilla Thunderbird. Switching your email application to “offline” mode means that you can still search and use your emails for referencing things, but no new mail will arrive to tempt your time and focus away. If using Gmail or another web-based email application, simply close it down. If email is not accessible to you it can’t distract you. If you find yourself still thinking about what emails might be in your inbox, set a timer for 30 minutes and only after you’ve been working on your current task for 30 minutes should you let yourself check your email.
Process and Sort
When you do come around to checking your email, be ruthless. Do not spend hours and hours reading every single email that comes your way. Setup filters that categorise or label the email depending if your email address appears in the TO or CC field. If your email address doesn’t appear at all (either it’s part of a distribution list or was in the BCC field) these emails take a lower priority.
Make sure your email application is setup so that the reading pane is hidden – you should only be looking at a list of emails, not the emails themselves. This helps you to maintain focus on deciding what to do with each message rather than spending time reading and re-reading each email as you select it.
Setup three folders in your email application:
For each email in your inbox decide if any action is required from you. If you need to do work then move the email to the “Doing” folder and add a task to your task list. If action is required, but it’s not urgent, still create a new task in your task list, but move the email to the Later folder. If the email has no value to you delete it. Yep, delete it. For anything else, move it to the Archive folder. Some emails contain information of high value. For these I recommend forwarding them to Evernote.
Repeat this for every email in your inbox until it’s empty. If you attempt to do this with an overloaded inbox consider moving everything into the Archive folder to give you a clean slate.
When you’re inbox is cleared your mind will be able to focus on the real work – the tasks you’ve created. Move your attention to those tasks in combination with the emails in the Doing folder. As you’ve completed actions required for each of these emails move them into the Archive folder. When the Doing folder is empty, move on to the Later folder.
I’ve been using this approach to my email inbox for some time now and I feel great about it. It’s comforting to know that every email that has come my way has been sorted and processed. It’s one less thing I need to use brain-power on, which means I can focus completely on the real work at hand and get more done.
Still, one system doesn’t suit everybody. Give this approach a try and tweak it to suit the way you work.