Be a Hero with Inbox Zero
There are a lot of ways to be more productive at work — Pareto Principle, GTD, Tim Ferris and his Four-Hour Workweek...
And I’m sure they are all good. They tout getting more done, being happier at work, being a killer at work, etc.
OK, so I made that last one up. But whatever your methodology dujour, I’m betting you get too much email. There is a digital spigot on every device you own and it’s ding-ding-dinging you into a mental frenzy.
Merlin Mann hit the nail on the head when he discussed the existential problem email poses to productivity. And how Inbox Zero can help you gain the upper hand over your inbox:
“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many messages are in your inbox — it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.”
So this post isn’t about anything groundbreaking — sorry! It’s about how I’ve taken Mann’s idea and put it to work in my life. And how you might be able to do the same. OK everyone, into the inbox rabbit hole!
The Evil Inbox
Email. Love it or hate it, you get too much of it. The thing is, most people think email is killing them, when it’s really the way they use email and their inbox that’s the root of the problem. It’s not email, it’s you.
At the risk of sounding like all the other crackpot self-helpers, what if I told you that with a simple change, you could sleep better at night and be held in a higher regard by your coworkers?
You want to do a magic trick? Get to an empty inbox and show your coworkers. They’ll look at you with such amazement and disbelief, you might as well have told them you coined the word “redonkulous.” Or pulled out a Tamagotchi you’ve kept alive since 1992.
Reaching Email Nirvana
Listen, none of this is new. The idea of Inbox Zero has been around a while, and for the purposes of this post, we’re going to say it was invented by Merlin Mann. He coined the term at a Google conference. So what is it, really? Let’s go into what it isn’t.
A way to get more done
A way to be more productive
Something else to obsess over
A clean inbox
So what is it?
A way to get your focus
Declutter your mind
Stop treating your inbox like a to-do list
To understand this better, we need to chat briefly about how your attention span really works.
The Multitasking Myth
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot multitask. It’s just not possible. When you’re supposedly multitasking, you’re really task switching, and going from one thing to the other is a huge energy suck for your brain.
Your Inbox is Not Your To-Do List
We all have an inbox, and it probably has some emails in it. By the time you’re done reading this post, it will probably have even more. It’s like having an Amazon delivery, but instead of getting something good, you just get a flaming bag of dog shit on your front door. The worst part is that after you read it, you probably need to take action on it. Ahh! The world's worst boss, amirite? So what are you supposed to do with it?
The answer is you add it to a to-do list. Sure, if you can answer it right away, in under two minutes, go for it. It’s not worth adding a to-do if it’s that quick. If it’s going to take longer, add the required action to your to-do list and archive the email. You can always search and find it later, but this gets it out of your field of view and you can focus on other tasks.
To get to Inbox Zero, you must have a to-do list — a place where you record your tasks. Because if you don’t, your brain is going to keep working on it, even in the background. Capturing your tasks in one place let’s your brain off the hook because it knows you’ll get to it later.
There Can Be Only One (To-Do List)
I’m just going to say it — you can’t have more than one to-do list. Think about it, how can you possibly manage your day when you split it up? You need something central and something you can have with you most of the time. For me, I like a Google Doc. Some people prefer Evernote and others like a good ol’ piece of paper. The key is that you can always have it at the ready, and there is only one of them.
Once you have a single to-do list, you need to think about organizing it. Ordering it by day is the obvious choice, because we’re trying to free your mind and also have a place to capture all the new stuff coming at you.
Here is what I do:
I call it the 2Then method because it’s setup in priority order with only two things being top priority. Yeah, yeah, I can hear your brain screaming from here, “I have more than two priorities a day, asshat!” Yes, you do but think of it like this. If you got a call at 11am that you had to stop work and leave, what are the two things you will need to get done? That’s what I mean by top priority.
Here is a sample list:
Send report to Bob, review first (30 mins)
Finish Inbox Zero blog post (2 hours)
This (1 hour)
That (15 minutes)
The other (45 minutes)
Plan day for tomorrow
Check in with Bob - see if he has questions on report
Order lunch for Friday’s client meeting
Prepare status reports (1 hour)
Clean dog slobber off briefcase (15 minutes)
Research client proposal (45 minutes)
Let’s dissect this a little bit and find out why it works.
2Then: These are the hot priority items
Everything Else: These are the items I work on after my top priority items are complete, or if I have to stop working on my 2Then’s because I’m waiting or stopped. For example, if I’m waiting for someone to send me a report before I can send it out, I’ll work on everything else.
Time: I’ve already thought about how much time something will take. How else will you know if you have a full day? This way I can take the total time in my list, then look at my calendar and see that I have three hours of meetings and I’m under eight hours, which is what I want to work today. This totals up to six hours, which also gives me time for the unexpected, because you know there will be other items that need to be handled. Plan for the unplannable.
Wednesday: This let’s me plan for future days.
Putting the Plan Into Action
Once I have my list, this is how I setup my day:
First thing in the morning, I look at my list and get my bearings. Ideally, I don’t have a meeting right away, so I clean out my inbox. The key is to get a clear list of things as soon as possible. As the day progresses, I’m crossing items off my list and handling email as it comes in.
When an email arrives, I quickly scan it and ask myself, “Can I act on this now?” If yes, do it. If not, I add it to my to-do list.
As the day goes along, I cross items off my list and prioritize as needed. At the end of the day, I work on my list for the next day, so I can hit the ground running.
Whenever I talk about my process, people list out a few Frequently Asked Reasons why Inbox Zero won’t work for them.
“But I use my calendar to manage my day.” That’s great, but you still need a to-do list to manage your tasks.
“I really have more than two priorities a day!” OK, but you know the old saying — if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. I’d suggest some soul searching or working with a coworker or boss to figure some sort of prioritization scheme.
“This is hard. I don’t have time for all this.” To that I’d say, it will get easier after you do it for a few weeks. However, until you decide organizing your work in a better way is important, I can’t really help you. Keep doing what you’re doing until you’re ready to get serious.
Inbox + To-Do List = Path to Enlightenment
Once you have a little proficiency and facility with the method, you can begin to use your to-do list as a tool of self-discovery, and you can ask yourself a few probing questions. “Why didn’t I get everything knocked off my list?” Did you not estimate your time correctly? If not, get better as estimating time for tomorrow’s work.
Or maybe you didn’t get it all done because someone else added something to your list. Perhaps you should ask yourself if it’s right that Bob from accounting is managing your list. Maybe you should work on being more assertive with Bob.
Managing your to-do list can also lead to some valuable insights:
Do you work better in the mornings or evenings?
Do you like to work on smaller tasks first or last? Why?
Why didn’t you complete your to-do list today? Use that in planning future days.
Know thyself. Way back in the day, the ancient greeks knew that self-knowledge is key to living a fulfilling life. Anything can be used to learn more about yourself, if you just pay attention. Even your to-do list.
Wrap It Up, B.
The key to beating your inbox isn’t about your inbox at all. It’s about you creating a few systems to help you manage the flood coming at you. The truth is, your inbox will never be empty, so get over the sadness of that and do something to help yourself.