I’ve always admired my friends who practice Inbox Zero. The transient beauty of an empty Inbox screen was compelling. If that’s what you’re looking for; here’s Merlin Mann at his original Google talk. I summarise his tips below.
Getting to Inbox Zero
The best takeaway from Mann’s talk is his breakdown of the five potential actions to manage your Inbox. In rough order;
- Delete – triage as ruthlessly as you can. Decide on the basis of the Subject header.
- Delegate – decide if you are the right person to answer/address the email. Delegate appropriately if it isn’t and only CC yourself if you need to follow what happens.
- Respond – does the email take less than 2 minutes to resolve. Deal with it now and archive. Notifications, transactional emails such as confirmations and receipts are examples of these.
- Defer – Is it relevant and important to you but will take more than 2 minutes to answer? Schedule a proper time to deal with it. Email off a calendar invite or block off time to work on the task.
- Do – If it needs to be done by yourself and you have time to work on it now; do so.
It’s reminiscent of another practical productivity management method; President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision matrix.
Urgent vs Important
The Eisenhower Matrix has a clever productivity message underlying this decision box.
Eliminate the Unimportant before Optimizing for the Urgent.
The trick to this deceptively simple guidance is how to consistently and appropriately filter not only for Importance but for Urgency. So that’s what I try to do instead of working towards Inbox Zero.
Rather than beating myself up for the wall of unresolved email; I give myself permission that it’s OK to work on what’s Urgent & Important first, not just what’s demanding it’s Urgent.
One way to decide which bucket a task falls into is to define Important and Urgent. Remember, Urgent doesn’t necessarily mean Important.
Important – tasks and activities we consider important usually align with our goals and values. They strengthen relationships or honour obligations whether personal or professional. When working on Important activities, we are Responsive, rational and fulfilled.
Urgent – these activities usually support others’ goals and demand immediate attention due to perceived consequences. As a result, you will be in a Reactive state, under pressure and drained.
Using these definitions and the Decision Matrix, we can prioritize our tasks and aim to handle each email ONCE.
Important & Urgent – [Do these immediately]
These take top priority as these are crises whether it be making payroll by the end of the week or managing the latest inflammatory tweet from your Commander in Chief.
I like to resolve these as efficiently as possible. Dedicate the productive morning time towards them. Delegate to the person best suited to the task and cover some of their work if necessary.
Important but Not Urgent – [Schedule for later]
Planning and booking appropriate time for important tasks minimizes stress and optimizes your productivity. Aim to maximise these activities as it helps to counter the Present Bias in our lives. Assigning priority to these tasks creates a habit of self discipline and motivates to get them done where there’s no pressure of a deadline.
These activities further your goals and set yourself up for future success. These are my favorite type of tasks such as self improvement, date nights, family time, forward planning but also includes regular maintenance duties.
Not Important but Urgent – [Delegate away]
Interruptions both in real life (texts, phone, drop-in visits) or online (Slack, email, social media requests) all fall in this category. Unimportant meetings are a common culprit also. Whenever possible deflect them to the appropriate person or at worst, schedule them to a time of your choosing.
Where this is a recurring event such as that colleague that keeps reaching out for help without notice; look at setting up a regular meeting time convenient for you to address issues and not outside that slot.
These activities benefit others more than you and being time sensitive, feel both urgent and tangible. Resolving them rarely help your own workload beyond the transient reward of ticking off the item added to your To Do list. As such, be assertive to balance your own work needs with these inbound tasks. Learn to say No and set clear boundaries.
Not Important and Not Urgent – [Eliminate and Avoid ASAP]
These activities are distractions and time wasters. Unless it’s time set aside for enjoyment and recreation; limit how much time is spent on these. Scrolling through social media, random browsing, video games and gambling would fall into this quadrant.
Not sure if an activity or request should be eliminated? Ask yourself does it move you closer to any personal or professional goals. Does it align with your core values? Do you feel like you’re doing “Busy Work” all day when you think back?
Is Inbox Zero irrelevant?
As rewarding as it feels to reach Inbox Zero; take a moment to reflect that the workplace and how we work has changed since Merlin presented back in 2007. Crushing emails to reach an empty Inbox is not enough to be productive nor necessarily the best use of your time.
Email is still a necessary part of work and as distracting a channel it may be; is treated by many as formal a medium of correspondence as a written letter was decades ago. When we want to record data for the future we capture it in an email. Decisions, agreements and outcomes are communicated and stored in email and real world documents attached for safe keeping. Searching for these same artifacts and decisions within the email threads becomes problematic and we all use multiple email addresses, often interchangeably; making it more challenging.
Instead of mechanically working to empty your Inbox, try these inbox management tips to save both time and energy;
- Filter – set up filters to sift out transactional emails such as receipts, confirmations and other automated responses. FIlters can also be used to divert newsletters, and promotional email you want to read at your leisure into separate folders for future reading.
- Archive with confidence. Label and Subfolders – labelling important email threads and setting up specific subfolders makes it easy to retrieve it all later.
- Unsubscribe – an obvious one is to be ruthless with email subscriptions but also consider removing yourself from group emails and meeting invites that are no longer relevant.
- Create Template responses – Gmail “Canned Responses” or email plugins like MixMax reduce the time to personalize recurring emails. Some examples;
- Payment information – “Please send the invoice to email@example.com, and be paid within 30 days.”
- Delegating – “Please meet my colleague in Sales, [Name], who will be able to assist you with [issue].”
- Double opt-in introduction request – “Hi [Name], I wanted to check in with you before introducing you to [Name]. I’d like to do the introduction because [Reasons].”
- Defer – “Hi [Name], I’m unable to assist right now. Please follow up with me in two weeks.”
- Turn Off Email Notifications – I find “Inbox (1)” really distracting when I’m trying to focus. Setting aside time to check on email is as important as blocking off dedicated time to focus on a task. There are Gmail extensions to temporarily pause incoming emails. Knowing there will be a time to check on email later of MY choosing gives my brain permission to get into Flow State quicker when concentrating on a task.
Removing interruptions will maintain your momentum and minimize mental context switching which is both disruptive and exhausting. Regaining control of your time is also essential to your mental health. If you want to get back that end-of-day catch-up time you normally spend on email, try Verbz and get through your tasks even faster.
Each of these tips apply equally well on messaging platforms like Teams and Slack in helping you preserve your bandwidth and freeing you to focus on productive work. I treat the messaging feeds and my Inbox like how our Reception handles the Waiting Room. Triage the emergencies, assign the right people to look after the incoming cases and get rid of the sales people. For anything else that doesn’t need to be dealt with now; it gets scheduled. We can learn a lot from the reception staff who are masters at multitasking.