The most important thing about following an Inbox Zero practice is understanding the underlying motivation for doing so. Maintaining an inbox that contains no mail in it to distract you provides a significant change in mental stress. You’ll notice almost immediately a new feeling about the work you are currently doing. You’ll begin to feel more on top of things, and you’ll start to realize that the new feeling you have is the realization of “done”.
When we continue to maintain an inbox with hundreds, thousands, or even fifty messages we are telling our brain, “this is material I still need to review”. In most cases however this is material that we have long read and dealt with, yet we continue to maintain them in our inbox with the hope that if something happens we will have covered ourselves. When we follow an Inbox Zero methodology, and remove all of the clutter from the inbox we also remove the little voice constantly nagging away at us asking, “have I taken care of everything I need to take care of?” With the inbox completely empty there holds little doubt as to what remains to be addressed.
In many cases, some people I’ve talked to use their inbox as a way of controlling their task list. Active tasks remain unread until they are completed, and completed tasks are sorted into a project folder. This of course causes new junk messages, meeting reminders, and new tasks to get tied up with current tasks you are working on and your brain has to stress over what tasks are actually started, which aren’t, and what priority they should be in. The fact is, your email inbox should not be used to maintain your task list (more on this in the next post).
Just as with a post office mailbox, the purpose of it is to act as a temporary storage facility for you to come and get your mail. Once you have received the mail you sort them into junk mail, personal, bills, and the like. But never do you walk back outside to your mailbox and put the items back in for storage. The same rule should apply to your email inbox and it just takes a little mental retraining to get into the habit of keeping this empty.
In part two of this series I’m really going to get things rolling by talking about dealing with incoming email. I’ll be covering prioritization and concepts of how to quickly move through your inbox and get things cleared out. This is the foundation of maintaining a empty inbox, and the way you adapt these upcoming suggestions into your day will dramatically effect how you get work done.
3 thoughts on “Living Zero: Part 1, What It Feels Like”
A buddy and myself started on Inbox Zero a year or so ago, and it really proves itself. However, you don’t get the full effect until you utilize it with a GTD app. My process involves reviewing an email, then hitting Opt-Space and entering in a To-do item if applicable. I then review the to-do items when I get a chance and sort accordingly or take care of them.
My inbox now involves only quick messages, almost like IM software. If its something I need to reply to or forward, and I can’t at the moment, I flag it for when I can “handle it as actual email”. But those are few and far between.
“Once you have received the mail you sort them into junk mail, personal, bills, and the like. But never do you walk back outside to your mailbox and put the items back in for storage.”
I think that is a flawed analogy. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, you wouldn’t have folders in your e-mail box at all (or maybe that’s your point). Everything would come in, then get filed into another program (to-do list, task manager, saved to a folder on the hard drive, whatever).
Regardless of where those items end up, they’re still going to be stored somewhere until they get done, whether it be in a task list application, written on a whiteboard, or just left sitting in the inbox or one of its folders.
Justin, the point I was making here is that when dealing with physical messages we sort them. Obviously if people were sorting them into other folders their inbox wouldn’t have messages in it just as we would sort our physical mail when we receive it. There are indeed other factors that come into play that will be further discussed in the series. Thanks for reading.