Let’s start with the uncomfortable truth about the way that we work.
As soon as more than one thing has our attention and we experience information overload, our instinctive reaction is that we want to feel busy to feel like we’re making progress. Because as a species we’re inherently lazy, we gravitate to the easiest way to achieve this illusion of progress.
We open our email inbox, check for what’s new, we scroll up and down, we check for what’s new, we scroll up and down, we fiddle around creating archive folders, we check for other new information (for example on our social media profiles or the news or our phone) and generally begin to develop an addiction to being connected. What we’re addicted to here is the illusion of productivity for a minimal payoff of thinking.
Getting your inbox to zero breaks out of this bad habit and forces Ninja-like decisiveness and discipline. This is needed for you to make the difficult decisions about emails as soon as you read them, reducing procrastination time, increasing clarity about your work and vastly reducing the stress that email overload causes.
Email changes from being a task that seems like an amorphous mass of work that will never be finished, into a quantifiable conveyor belt where every single email has a possible decision that can be made about it straight away. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Well, the good news is that is really is, and these 3 mindset changes are a great starting point!
Your Inbox Is Just a Place Where Emails Land
Your inbox is not your to-do list. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your inbox is not your to-do list. It is nothing more than a holding pen for where new inputs land. We often try to keep emails in our inbox because we don’t want to lose them or we want to come back to them. But the really meaningful work goes on outside the email inbox and using it as your primary to-do list reminder will mean either that things from elsewhere are missed or you end up having to email yourself. A lot.
In addition, using your inbox as a to-do list mixes your to-do reminders with all the other noise that your inbox throws at you, so it can be difficult to know what’s ‘to do’ versus ‘what’s happening’ versus what can be ignored.
We need to create new holding pens (@action, @read, @waiting and a simple archive system) for these very differently categorized items otherwise we’ll keep having to make the decisions about what’s actionable and what’s not over and over again.
Don’t Let Your Inbox Nag You All Day
Your inbox is full of potentially exciting information to get distracted with and this information is piling up all the time! ‘What if there’s something vital in there? Better quickly go and see what it is!’ Checking too often can become a deadly disease. Turn off every sound and graphic. That way, you can revisit the inbox when you’re ready to, not when the inbox is nagging you to return.
Don’t Check Your Emails, ‘Process’ Your Emails
This might sound really simple, but it’s one of those subtle changes that’s actually profound. Every time you open your inbox, your mindset is not to check what’s new, but to make the decisions and create the momentum needed to move those emails to where they need to get to.
You can only get it out of your inbox if every option you need has an obvious next step; otherwise your mind will do what it probably does now and say: ‘Err, not sure where that goes. I’ll come back to that one later’.
Making time to follow up, double check, print, clean up and generally do some housekeeping on your email system provides a regular chance to do some routine maintenance and a little bit of strategic-level review. After all, it’s important that we measure the effectiveness of any system; one of the key problems with how most people use Outlook or Gmail is that they don’t feel there’s any way that they can gain control, so they don’t think there’s anything to measure.
The great thing about Inbox Zero is that, once you reach it, it’s pretty easy to stay there as there’s no mountain left to climb, just today’s molehill.