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Zero Inbox

January 28, 2009

Email has serious limitations as a communication tool (and even moreso as a collaboration tool). In addition to the ever expanding CC: list, the difficulty of re-reading the whole email chain, and the challenge of bringing multiple lengthy email chains to any closure, there is an issue of karmic debt in email. It is extremely easy for me, without thinking about it very much, to fire off an email to 20 people asking a few poorly formed questions. It could easily cost the company hundreds of man hours of effort if those people actually send me meaningful responses. The situation quickly degenerates into a sort of asymmetric information warfare: my thoughtful responses can just generate a new flood of casually fired off questions until we all just get tired of the topic.

But, in the words of Arlo Guthrie, that’s not what I came to tell you about.

I came to talk to you about your inbox. Or mine, anyway. Because the result of the process described above is a bloated, terrifying, out-of-control inbox.

The other day, I overheard someone on Twitter say that “Your inbox is a To Do list that other people write to.” But in fact it is much worse than that. Your inbox (if it is like mine) is a huge mishmash. Some of it is actions that people are trying to write to your To Do list. But the rest of it is general commentary, status reports, vague questions, notifications of corporate programmes or policies, feedback on things you’ve done, jokes, etc, etc.

You don’t want to just ignore it all. There are some things that require your attention. The question is, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? So you spend your free minutes between meetings desperately paging through your inbox and hoping there are no time bombs ticking in there.

One of the GTD insights that really resonated for me is value of separating processing your inbox from actually acting on it. There are various flowcharts and diagrams for how this should work, but the basic principle is that the only things in your inbox should be things you haven’t looked at yet. At least once (but preferably more than that) you should process every item in your inbox, delete the stuff that’s not needed, sort the rest out into things you just need for reference, and things you need to actually act on. Then you’ve achieved Zero Inbox. No cherry picking allowed, you want to go top to bottom and sort them out based on the following process:

  • Start at the top.
  • Deal with one item at a time.
  • Never put anything back into ‘in’.
  • If an item requires action:
  •             Do it (if it takes less than two minutes), OR
  •             Delegate it, OR
  •             Defer it – by moving it to a folder that specifically holds things you need to act on.
  • If an item does not require action:
  •             File it for reference, OR
  •             Throw it away, OR
  •             Incubate it for possible action later.

It sounds impossible, and the first time you do it is extremely intense. The key is being ruthless, not getting distracted, and not letting too many “woolly half-thought requests” stop your progress. If an item doesn’t have a clear concrete action, then file it immediately. Having looked at it and thought about it, your subconscious will continue to boil it down, and if there is a specific action it will crystallize for you later (and you’ll catch it in your daily or weekly review). You might even have to set aside ½ day or more for the first time. But once it is done you’ll find it incredibly addicting and energizing. Once you get ahead of it, you’ll never want to go back.

This practice doesn’t stand alone. It only works if you have a strong system for tracking/managing the actions your are delegating and deferring and filing reference material for later use, and it is much easier if you figure out how to best use Outlook and various other tools that make it easier. But those are topics for future posts!

“Bottom of my inbox!” (or BOMI) becomes a cry of liberation. You’ve cleared the decks, you know what people are asking of you, and now you’re ready to make decisions about what to act on.

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