I recently listened to an episode of Beyond the To-Do List where host Erik Fisher and guest Merlin Mann (creator of Inbox Zero) talk about inboxes and managing them appropriately. One of the things Merlin talked about was a subconscious fear we have of our inboxes because of the unknown – we’re afraid of what might be lurking in there. The reason we’re afraid of what might be in there is that we’re afraid that there might be something urgent that we need to deal with, and we don’t think we can right now.
When it comes to handling your inboxes though, ignorance is not bliss. The thing that may be in there is either urgent or important regardless of whether you are aware of it and deal with it or not. The fact that it’s there isn’t a big deal, but the fact that you aren’t in a place to respond appropriately is what makes it a big deal. The trick is to identify and classify it so you can take appropriate action on it.
David Allen, the author of the Getting Things Done methodology, talks a lot about what he calls “emergency scan modality” – a constant state of putting out fires. A lot of people live this, and this is the default behavior for the person with 1000+ messages in their inbox.
Pro tip: If that’s you, accept that there’s no way you’ll get through all those messages – you’re better off nuking your inbox and starting over. It can be scary to get rid of all those messages, but let’s be real – you don’t know what’s in there, and you never will. If you wait until you process all that stuff to start chasing “Inbox Zero”, you’ll never get there. Just hit “delete” and work with a blank slate, and commit to doing better from this moment on. Go on – you can thank me later.
The person with 1000+ messages in their inbox is many times the person who is always pulling out their phone and checking their inbox 100 times a day. They know their inbox is a jumbled mess, and they’re worried that if they don’t check their email 100 times a day something important might get lost in that giant sea of unread text. Their subconscious belief is that if something is really important it will cause me to stop whatever I’m doing and I’ll deal with it, but how much of our time and attention is being robbed from the people and things that are most important to us?
My friends, you’re doing it wrong.
Here’s a few tips for dealing with your inboxes so you can stop worrying and start executing:
- Turn off the notifications – you don’t need to know the second you receive spam or be interupted when a fake Twitter bot follows you. Try only checking your email 2 or 3 times a day. It sounds blasphemous, I know, but try it – you’ll see that things aren’t as urgent as they seem.
- Simplify – take stock of how many inboxes you have (and how many you actually need). How many unknown inboxes are keeping you up at night? Consolidate. Get everything into a couple inboxes that you check and process regularly.
- Have a system – when you check your inboxes, do something with them! Don’t just check your email and then leave every message in your inbox – file them appropriately. Tag them, put them in nested folders, I don’t care – just do something!
- Just do it – stop procrastinating. Just like any kind of housework, it isn’t fun but needs to get done. Just get it over with and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore and it doesn’t have to steal your attention when you’re doing something actually important.
- Be Consistent – you need to empty your inboxes at least once a week. Some inboxes (like email) need to be emptied more regularly, but the concept is the same – consistency is key.
Emptying your inboxes should become part of your weekly review. The weekly review is extremely important and helps keep your priorities straight. If during your weekly review you realize that you have a ton of unprocessed items in an inbox or you realize that you’ve achieved Inbox Zero but it took way too much work, it’s time to take a look at your processes and re-evalutate how you’re doing things.