Inbox Zero

Firstly, let me apologise up-front to those of you who have a deep rooted suspicion of the word productivity. I know, I understand, it’s fine. Ignore this article. Bury it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Move on to something more interesting. To be quite honest I’m with you, just writing this is bringing me out in a nasty rash. I think there’s more of stigma about personal and business productivity in the UK than in the US, but nevertheless, I feel this apology is in order. The only reason I’m interested in this at all is because being ‘more productive’ means spending more time doing the fun things, whatever they are, and less time juggling email and task lists. So I present:

Over the last ten years email has become our primary means of communication with our co-workers, business partners, colleagues and in some cases friends. Love it or loathe it, usually loathe, email is how we’re now expected to handle the majority of our day-to-day business communication. This being the case it’s amazing how many people I hear complain about their relationship with their inbox, the dread with which they face myriad unread emails, newsgroup postings, spam and general internet detritus, and the anxiety around processing all that data. You see inboxes bursting at the seems with unopened email and unanswered messages, each of them adding to the overwhelming sense of impending doom and damnation. Inbox message volumes are often in the thousands not even counting the overly complex folder structures storing emails that may just be useful one day, but invariably never are. This article describes a means of working with Outlook and email in general that is slick, easy to use, accessible, and puts you in control of email so you can process your incoming messages more quickly, more easily, allowing you to get on with far more enjoyable and worthwhile things more of the time. Things like talking to people, being creative, making money, stalking people on twitter. Whatever it is that you do. I’ll say one thing upfront, this isn”t to say you can’t be perfectly productive and happy not following this system. If you have a system that works for you and you”re already as efficient as you can be, great. Good for you. I’m only presenting something that’s worked well for me as I have a fundamental dislike of working in email and time-management packages. I’d much rather be talking to people in the old fashioned way – I’m romantic like that. I also need to admit that very little of what I write here is original thought – although I came to the idea of processing to zero independently, the majority of the processes I follow are either from David Allen”s excellent Getting Things Done, or from any one of a number of GTD blogs such as the very good 43folders.  The exact way I work with Outlook is my own and is based on what works for me, but the basic concept that drives that relationship is pure GTD. I won’t bother to explain the GTD methodology in detail here as there are enough sites out there doing that already, I simply recommend you pick up a copy of Allen’s book and read it through. Even if you only read the first 45 or so pages you’ll probably find the investment pays itself back time and time again. It really is very good. I will, however, give a brief summary necessary to understand the rest of this article.

‘Getting Things Done’

Getting Things Done, or GTD as it”s normally called, is basically a way of handling all incoming information/tasks using four actions: Do it (immediately, if it takes less than 2 minutes); Defer it (if you need to physically do something to action this but it”ll take a little time); Delegate it (be harsh – if you”re not the right person or simply don”t have time for the task give it to someone else to handle.  If you care about whether they complete it or not, track it by all means, but delegate quickly and efficiently); Delete it (this is the hardest action for most people, but if the incoming information is just spam, junk mail, for info where you”ve got tagged on for some reason, just delete it and forget about it.  Honestly.  Just trash it.  You don’t need and never will).

By using these four actions you”ll end up with three types of things:

Things you’re doing straight away.

Things you”re going to do later, when you’ve got time between meetings, or when you’ve finished whatever it is you’re doing at that moment, or simply when you feel it’s appropriate.

Things you’re tracking as you’ve delegated them but it”s still your job to ensure they get done at some point.

Allen”s book obviously goes into a lot more detail than this and includes chapters on actually implementing this system and what he describes as natural project planning, but this is the basic drive of the system and al the information I used when I started working with GTD.

‘Inbox Zero’

So what is Inbox Zero? It is the basic idea that your electronic inbox is very much like your front-door mat, that’s to say the first place incoming communication lands before it is processed. It is not, however, a place to store things -it is not a repository or store room. By having your inbox empty as its natural state, you’re more easily able to stay in touch with how much information’s coming in on a daily basis. By going through the process of emptying your inbox, you’re forced to decide next actions for all your email traffic, putting you fully in control of your time and task load. This being the case, the first job in this process is to get on top of your inbox. Set a day to do this, clear you calendar, and make a pact with insert appropriate deity here that you’ll see the process through to the end. Use blood, chicken feathers, incense, whatever works for you, or simply commit to it and keep that commitment. Then, process your entire inbox until there is nothing in it. Nothing at all.  Empty. This is your inbox in the correct, natural state. As you do this, follow the GTD  rules of: 1) Do it; 2) Defer it; 3) Delegate it; 4) Delete it. Below are a few guidelines for this process:

1) Do it – if it takes less than 2 minutes, just get on with it. Then, either file the email or delete it. In my case, I file pretty much everything from 3rd parties, commissioned workers, contractors, and our publishing partner. This could be all be useful one day. I delete pretty much all internal mail unless there’s a good reason I may want it for reference or legal reasons at some undetermined point in the future. Note on filing systems – you probably have many, many folder levels with multiple folders in each. I strongly recommend you move to something more streamlined.  Merlin Mann recommends a single ‘Reference’ folder. Although I see the logic, for managers who do a lot of outward facing work I’m not sure it’s totally effective, it certainly wasn’t for me as when I tried this I found myself digging through hundreds of names to find one accursed email. In my case I have 13 folders covering 2 letters of the alphabet each, and then in the same root directory the occasional project folder if I want to keep copies of all mails relating to an ongoing project, be it a holiday, a legal conversation or whatever else, in one place. In your case do whatever works for you, just think about how often you really ever go back to a stored email – I suspect it”s rarely. This being the case, the simpler the folder structure the better.

2) Defer it – If it”s going to take longer than two minutes, defer it.  I use an ”Outlook” flag for this, the red flag, and then file the mail immediately. Using the Outlook search function I can find all flagged emails quickly and easily, showing me everything I need to action when I have more than two minutes on my hands.

3) Delegate it – If I want someone else to deal with something I forward it to them, this time flagged with an Outlook orange flag. This gives me the ability to track it and monitor progress at the appropriate time. I then file the email.

4) Delete it – As I said earlier, be harsh with this, get used to just deleting a whole load of email you don”t need and never will.

At the end of this process, if you”ve done it right, your inbox will be completely empty, and you will feel a wonderful catharsis – like a weight’s been lifted from your overburdened shoulders. In fact, the problem’s more likely to be the fact that you won’t initially know how to fill the gaps in time you used to spend scrolling up and down your inbox looking for the next thing  to do. Savour those moments.


Now your inbox is purged of the junk, let’s deal with ongoing maintenance, the processes you’ll use to keep it at zero:

  1. Decide when you’re going to process your email. Set aside time to do this each day, and unless absolutely necessary do not process outside of these times. Leave it alone. Do fun stuff, creative stuff, other stuff. But don’t do email.
  2. When you process, follow the four GTD rules: 1) Do it 2) Defer it 3) Delegate it 4) Delete it.
  3. Flag and file, file, or simply delete everything. Keep nothing in your inbox.

And that, my friends, is about it. If you have an urge to give this a go but are worried that your life may end, the Large Hadron Collider may create a black-hole and swallow your world, or any one of a number of other apocalyptic scenarios, copy your currently mail folders somewhere as a backup. Having worked this system through with a good number of co-workers, however, I have a good feeling you”ll never go back to that backup.

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