Thursday, July 21, 2011

Living Inbox Zero

Merlin Mann is a point of inspiration for me in many ways. I like his philosophy, I like his approach to dealing with things, and I like the fact that he’s willing to admit that he’s not always really good at doing the things that he espouses, and that he is honest and open about that fact. In short, Merlin recommends a lot of the things he does not because he is really good at them, but because he is oftentimes really bad at them and wants to get better.

The idea probably most synonymous with Merlin is “Inbox Zero”. This is the idea that, every day, we should go through and sweep our email, text messages, etc., whatever it is that we use to stay up to date on things, and everything should be processed, either first thing in the morning or last thing close of business, take your pick. More to the point, it's not the number of messages, it's the percentage of your brain that's in your Inbox. Inbox zero really means "nothing left in the air, everything has been dealt with in one way or another".  It seemed brilliant, it seemed like a perfectly sound idea, and I admired it for three years… and then, just this past week, I put it to the test.

Wait, I’ve admired an idea and three years later started using it?! A little slow on uptake are we? Well…yes, it seems. It’s taken me a long time to realize that I’m an email hoarder, with a byzantine system of storage and tracking and nesting and up until last Wednesday, an Inbox that had 3000 messages. WHY?!! Simple truth is, I was going to get to it later, after I dealt with the messages I was waiting to get to, which meant I frequently forgot about messages, which meant I often had a flurry of new messages to remind me of the old messages, which meant I had to file, sort, shuffle, and reconsider what I was going to do…and on and on and on, ad infinatum ad nauseum.

Part of me wanted to declare email bankruptcy, just say “heck with it and flush them all”. However, I realized that was just dealing with a symptom, it wasn’t getting to the root of a problem, which was that I was letting things hang around as some weird self-validating trophy of who I was and thought I was. Merlin has stated numerous times, and I really believe this, that we often use our Inbox to decide who we have to be on that day. Much of it fit certain categories; newsgroup discussions I valued (and were archived elsewhere), access codes for services (which really didn’t belong in email anyway, talk about a security issue), receipts (again, don’t really belong in email) and past plans and agreements (which, upon further reflection, I may have looked at 10 messages again over the past 3 years). The final grouping was the most important, but also the one that really deserved better treatment… ongoing and active work. The point is, there are better ways to manage this stuff. An email Inbox should not be the place.

With this, I made a decision. How about we give Inbox Zero a try, and not just Inbox Zero, but as close to Email Zero as humanly possible? So here’s what I did:

• Reconsidered and revamped the byzantine folders. Instead of multiple folders for everything, now there is just a few with very general areas (testing, scouts, family, writing) and the idea that anything that's DONE is either archived or deleted (and by archived, I mean in a journal, not an email folder).

• Worked through and pulled out any and all “sensitive items”, and either moved them to documents or a spreadsheet so I could keep track of them in a “trusted system”. Once there, delete the messages.

• Dates, plans, appointments, etc., capture them in a calendar and then delete the messages.

• Blog about or Journal the truly valuable correspondence, or otherwise get that valuable information in a place where it was most relevant. Then delete the messages.

• Realize that Yahoo Groups has a storage mechanism for all messages. If I want to consult an archive, go there. Get it out of my email unless it’s actual "in process" details that I need to do something about right now.

With that, I achieved the zen state of Inbox Zero in three days, and I can say I’ve maintained it now for four. It’s an early win, and some may say not worth talking about if it’s that early, but I think it is, because here’s what my test has informed me:

• Reading email is way faster now.
• I’m much more likely to call spam spam and just delete it.
• I’m less likely to provide energy needed for other more important endeavors to scanning my inbox and searching my inbox for something that might be important.
• I deal with messages much more quickly and make decisions about them much more quickly.
• I’m very jealously guarding that Zero status in the Inbox. It was hard won, I want to keep it there.
• The important data points are now in places where they make sense and can be more quickly utilized and identified.

So is it worth it to go “Inbox Zero”? My preliminary findings say “YES”. Seriously, if for no other reason, see if the time you spend staring at email goes down as a result of doing it. I’m willing to be the answer will be “yes”. It certainly seems to be the case for me.
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