Parts of my life were complete chaos, especially at work – the ‘Inbox Zero’ mentality changed that, in more areas than I expected…

As completely ridiculous as this sounds, when I got my first ‘work’ email address as a fresh faced IT technician back in 2012, I was incredibly excited. It made me feel like a proper adult; no longer was I operating under an adolescence mistake of a domain – jamesiskool94@gmail.com being one of my finest creations – I was a part of a larger communication network which required complete professionalism. It was big boy pants time!

Following the creation of a ‘proper’ email signature and my inclusion into multiple group mailboxes, the novelty soon wore off. Being part of this vast email network gave me no place to hide, I was receiving an item into my inbox every 10 minutes or so throughout the working day. Now I’m not inflating my own importance here, not all of those emails were for me, but they all came across my radar in some way, stealing some of my productivity time and contributing to my admittedly short attention span.

 

It wasn’t until recently that I came across a suitable way to deal with this constant influx of communications. For about another 6 years, through multiple different roles and capacities, I battled with keeping myself productive whilst ensuring I didn’t miss anything important. I look back and wonder exactly how many hours (and probably days) of my life I lost to the inefficiency of my workload management. Ironically, to sit and ponder this any further would in itself be inefficient, so let’s leave that in the past…

So, what actually is Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is a disciplined approach to Email Management founded by productivity expert Merlin Mann. Whilst many twist and interpretations have been made of the original Inbox Zero theory (for better or worse) the mantra remains the same – reduce the amount of time your brain is sat in your Inbox.

I can’t explain it better than the man himself – so the video below is from a Google Tech Talk in 2007, explaining the method to cure the madness –

How do I do this?

First off, I have a confession – I’m not a complete Inbox Zero purest. I manage my folder structures slightly differently to how Merlin Mann suggests but remain tight to the philosophy of keeping things in check!

I have folders for the different functions of my job role – these are my archive folders. Examples which may work for you include:

  • Account Management
  • Prospects
  • Projects
  • Internal

I then have a ‘Defer’ folder, examples may include:

  • To-Do
  • To Action

From there my process flow is as follows:

  1. Email Comes in – Can I deal with it in 2 minutes or less?
  2. If Yes – Deal with it and archive accordingly.
  3. If No – To my ‘To-Do’ list for action when appropriate.

 

Naturally I’d then pick a time to tackle the items on my To-Do list, working those which took the highest priority until the list was clear. Many people believe the ultimate goal of Inbox Zero is to only check your Inbox periodically. I.e Turn your email client/notifications off and only check your Inbox at say, the top of every hour. I think in practice that would be ideal, but in reality, most of us have jobs that require us to be vigilant and action those time-critical items straight away so it’s maybe not quite achievable.

What has this taught me?

As I said at the start of this blog, Inbox Zero hasn’t just taught me to better manage my emails, it’s taught me a few great lessons that I have managed to implement outside of the 9-5. It’s also opened my eyes to things that I think we all don’t realise have slowly crept into our lives – let me explain!

  • Reduce the noise. With the endless ‘smart’ gadgets that we have in our lives now, you can’t really go anywhere without having content literally rammed into your face. You’ve got to reduce the noise from the things around you, turn devices off to help you get in the zone. But that may not be enough – the physical act of you receiving an email on your computer, or a Facebook notification phone isn’t the only thing that can cause you a distraction. The phone physically being there next to you is enough to reduce your focus – this isn’t just me saying it either, studies have proved it.

  • Sweat the small stuff. To get to your To-Do list, you’ve got to get the niff naff jobs out of the way otherwise your mind may be somewhere else. Unless a task or job is time critical, no one is going to criticise you for putting some time aside for later on so that you can give it your full attention. There’s a big difference though between putting some time aside and putting something off – give your To-Do list the focus it deserves by getting the trivia out the way first.
  • Don’t be afraid to do it later. With the immediate access we have to communications, you don’t need to action everything right away. Don’t feel rude leaving someone on read or telling them you will get back to them later. Got a job to do at home? You don’t have to use the first available opportunity, you should use the best available opportunity! You need to organise your time in a way that maximises it. I’d much rather you reply to my message later on in an effective way rather than rushing it straight away!
  • Be disciplined! It’s something which is easy to say, but often not something which is easy to do. You’ve got to stick to a routine and a strategy to getting things done! When I first starting using Inbox Zero, I let it slip after about 2 months. I sat down at my desk one morning, opened the inbox and realised I hadn’t a clue what was going on. I had fallen back into the abyss of madness and lost so much time just sitting there wondering what to do first – I had no structure! The habit is hard to get into but once embedded becomes a routine which leads you to success.