Getting to Inbox Zero ... Handling the Email Onslaught

Written by Harold S. Mars III on Sunday, 19 February 2017. Posted in Productivity

Vanquish The Beast ... and Regain Your Sanity!

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For many of us engaged in "knowledge work," email is the heinous beast that seemingly just can't be defeated. Just when you think you've got a grip on the landscape of your day's activities and fluidly moving from one task to the next, a not-so-subtle voice beckons you to your email Inbox: "Hoooold up there, bucko! Look at this ... drop everything!" We've all heard that trumpeting voice often, co-mingled with even louder competing shouts vying for your attention ... then your Inbox gets ignored, and its contents start piling up, and piling up, two digital pages, then three ... you get the picture.

Every successive morning of not dealing with that digital accumulation, and you're faced with having to deal with a "number" at the start of the day ... 25, 55, 105, maybe 1005.1/ Your choice to ignore that not-so-subtle voice each day turns that Inbox into a beast that you will have to reckon with, sooner rather than later. So, how do we come to grips with our email enslavement (and it CAN really enslave you)?? I want to suggest looking at three concrete areas to face the beast head-on and get that inbox to zero ... and consistently keep it there. My suggestions embrace both preparing to slay the email beast, and actually executing (pun intended) on that ominous stack:

Get Trigger Happy (With the Delete Button)
Delete Button 4In order for you to get anywhere near back to sanity, you're going to have to become intimately comfortable with tapping on your delete button, often and with decreasing levels of hesitation. I know ... this is easier said than done, and is an area of difficulty for many of us, because there's that overwhelming feeling of loss of control, or "what if I need it later for something?!?," when we hover our finger over that button. But pressing that key simply MUST become a regular occurance. Here's some things to think about to get us comfortable with using the Delete Button:
  • First off, always remember that for most (if not all) email programs, anything you initially delete is not gone forever ... it goes into a "Trash" folder, waiting for you to permanently delete it (or, for a settings rule to kick-in to delete after 30, 60 or some other number of days). So if you find you've inadvertently deleted something, it will generally reside here for you to retrieve, IF you need to. You have a "backup," if you will, and that should ease your mind.
  • Second, think about how many emails you have just "lying around" in your Inbox that are dated as far back as forever?? Really ... how many emails have you been hanging onto that you haven't looked at in months, nay, years (again, telling yourself "what if I need it later for something?!?"). If you've got that kind of old, outdated backlog sitting in your inbox, sort your emails by date and have a quick look-see by subject line, then delete a bunch at one time by date range. Boom ... your email stack is starting to go down significantly.
  • Third, there are many emails we get that aren't worth moving past viewing at the subject line level ... advertisements and othe marketing materials (some you've allowed yourself to be subscribed to; more on that later), news flashes, junk mail, outright spam and those incessant strings of replies. Do you need to keep them hanging around in your inbox ... answer: 99% of the time, no. Again, sort your emails by Subject or From, do a quick last review and batch delete. IF needed (and I stress "IF"), setup and make use of a simple "Archive" folder for items you feel you simply must hang onto or are undecided about, and "park" them there for later review and further action. Excellent ... your Inbox pile continues to go down.
  • Fourth, as emails arrive in your Inbox, immediately delete those items that really hold no value and aren't worth keeping. Look at the subject line, or if necessary, open and quickly glance. Nothing of value ... no nugget of truth, no article link worth clicking on, or otherwise?? Let it go, and click the delete button ... right then and there.

By simply beginning with the mindset that your keyboard's Delete Button is your friend (not your enemy), you can effectively and efficiently deal with your Inbox backlog and the extraneous or "miscelleneous" type of things sitting there. Moving forward, when email arrives, you can ruthlessly look for these type of items and immediately jettison them. Armed with your newfound delete mentality, you'll find yourself beginning to significantly move your Inbox in the right direction ... toward the zero point. The roar of the beast is starting to lose its force and power.

Clarify and Organize
The second area of consideration and action toward getting your Inbox to zero is to think in terms of David Allen's Getting Things Done® methodology ... specifically in two ways (for more on this and other components of the methodology, see my blog post on "Exercising Your C.C.O.R.E"):
  • Clarify - after you've exercised your "delete" prerogitive, decide what it is you need to do with the remaining emails in your Inbox ... what's the next action? Here are the action possibilities (in the GTD® parlance):
    • Do It - Follow the two-minute rule. If the contents or actions implied in the email can be handled in less than two minutes, do it NOW, the first time you see it. Don't hold it, don't move it, just do it. Hit the reply button and respond in whatever fashion, make the call asked for, find that report that needs to be relayed to analyst down the hall or given to the admin assistant. If you don't take that action that can be done under the two-minute threshold, it'll probably take you longer to store it, open it up later, read through it again trying to glean what needs to be done than just girding your loins and taking action right then and there. Many emails can be quickly disposed of following this effective rule.
      • NOTE: one sub-set here is that many times you'll find that the email your reading is only reference material - something that really doesn't have an action associated with it, but might be useful to hold onto for sometime in the future. For these items, you can start feeling comfortable moving them into a "Reference" folder (more on this below type of organizing tool below).
    • Delegate It - if the email seemingly calls for someone else to take action, hand it off to whomever that person should be. If it will take under two minutes to do, do it ... relay the email with the requested action, pick up the phone and make the request, or whatever. If it will take longer than two minutes to relay, put it in an "Agenda" folder (maybe one setup specifically for the delegated person) or a "Waiting For" folder as a reminder tool and a collection point for later relay when you see or speak with that individual. If you're sending off the email for action by somebody else, you should also cc: or bcc: yourself so that a copy will come back to your Inbox for you to move to your "Waiting For" folder for tracking and "ticking off" in your task management system as it's completed by the delegated party.
    • Defer It For Later - move the emails that you yourself will need to take some action on in some way to either an "@Actions" folder in your email system (for you to review and act on later), or attach the email in some fashion to a task or action item in your task management system, or identify the email item in some way on your calendar (to be done at a specific day or particular time in a given day). Following GTD® methodology, it's a good idea to breakdown your Actions folder structure into sub-folders by context (@Computer, @Computer-Web, @Phone, @Home Office, etc.) to be able to really zone in on what can be accomplished given the environment you find yourself in at any point in time. Which leads to organizing ...
  • Organize -  as you're reading through the clarifying section, you should be getting the idea that I'm an advocate of setting up digital folders. To effectively handle emails where the determination has been made that your next action is to either Reference It, Delegate It, or Defer It For Later, it's incumbent that you have a good organizing folder structure using your chosen email and/or your task management systems. You can do this in one of two ways, or combining both:
    1. In your email program, create a couple of new folders: "@Actions" and "@Waiting For" (I'm using the "@" symbol as a prefix so that these folders get shown at the top of you folder structure). These are the folders you will use when you make the decisions described above for delegation or deferral; move your emails related to the action or delegation to these folders from your Inbox. You could also create a third folder entitled "@Reference" or an Archive folder (as previously mentioned), where you'll park those emails that contain information that may need to be referenced at a later date (maybe to be associated with a contemplated future project, as an example). You can review and refer to your emails in these folders to execute on them, track delegated items, or reference later. When a specific action you, or someone else, has acted on is complete, you can simply delete the email and/or mark it complete if you've setup a task item in your task management system (or move to the Reference or Archive folder for later reference regarding something else). Bottom line ... the email has been effectively moved out of your Inbox.
    2. If you have a robust productivity management tool that includes centralized management of email and the ability to link those emails to actions and projects, you'll be able to turn your emails into action items, waiting for's, tickler items, etc., or link them to existing actions, projects, prospect or contact records. One such tool is IQTell, my productivity management system of choice (see my blog article "IQTell ... One Sweet GTD Productivity Tool"). With IQTell, at the same time I convert or associate an email as a defined action, etc., I am able (with a couple of clicks) to simultaneously move the email to an Archive folder or other sub-folder, where I can view or retrieve it later, if necessary (with IQTell, a link to the originating email is also embedded into the newly created action, project or waiting for item). Bottom line, again ... your email is effectively moved out of your Inbox.
Change Your Thinking and Habits
The third area of consideration for effective battle against the email beast is to seriously consider changing both your thinking about email itself and how you manage it when it comes in. Let me offer a few suggestions:
  • Snoopy Vulture Gaze 1You MUST operate from a mind-set of "zero base" ... that you're not going to be satisfied to leave anything sitting in your email Inbox.That doesn't mean that every single moment of every single day, your Inbox has nothing residing in it ... you're NOT going to sit there like a vulture, wide-eyed and focused laser-like, waiting to hear that digital "ding" that an email has arrived ready for you to pounce on. No, you need to cultivate the mindset and habit that on some regular basis you're going to intentionally address your Inbox and process what's in it. What can you do to accomplish that?:
    • Designate a specific time to check and review your email Inbox. Set a time (or times) daily, or every couple of days, and stick to those times. Your review time should be at least weekly (for GTDers, that coincides with the Weekly Review activity). The designated timing will certainly vary based on your profession, occupation and type of activity or client/customer support your engaged in. For many knowledge workers confining the handling of your email to weekly, or even a couple of days, most likely will be too much of a time gap. But, tailor the review times to the ebbs and flows of your particular activities and interaction needs.
    • Remember to go into those review times ready to Clarify and Organize, per the above guidelines. And, go in with the first thought of hitting that Delete key!
    • Absolutely resist telling yourself "I'll tackle it later." Stick to your defined review times, and cultivate the habit and discipline of Clarifying and Organizing once you're there engaged with your Inbox ... see it through and work it out. This gets easier once you experience the feeling of getting your Inbox to zero ... you'll want to be in that zone again!
  • Become process-centric in your email dealings with others. This is a concept described by Cal Newport in his fine book, "Deep Work." Essentially, a lot of emails we receive as knowledge workers usually are of an "interrogative" nature ... they have some sort of question or request attached (representing an action or project engagement the other party wishes you to be involved in). These type of emails trigger the reaction that you've somehow got to send out a response quickly (or, immediately), so that the "ball" goes over to the other person's court. And many times this leads to communication "ping-pong," going back and forth (sometimes ad-naseum) as you work through the particular question or request. Cal Newport suggests that we think about what can be done to "close the loop" in the interaction to minimize the potential productivity and mental energy-draining potential of such interactions. Identify what you think is the desired outcome in the communication, then think a bit about what you can do in the reply that will "close the loop" on the email back-and-forth. It could be as simple as offering up dates & times to someone who's seeking a coffee or lunch date and asking them to choose from them (or send alternatives back if they don't work, either with a return email or by a phone call); or, setting up a review of a particular project item and answering questions about it using another communication vehicle (maybe in a shared project collaboration tool), rather than furthering it through email. I hope you're getting the idea ... with this type of focus, you're finding ways to get things out of the email loop, or at least minimize it, and into the potential use of other tools to work through the interrogative aspects.2/
  • Email Unsubscribe ButtonI mentioned earlier that most of us receive a sizable amount of advertising, marketing and other sales-type email in our Inboxes. However, most of this is "self-inflicted" when you think about it ... why? Because we can have a tendency to want to sign-up for everything that may peak our interest on a subject that interests us, or what we think might be applicable to what we do as a consultant, accountant, bookkeeper, lawyer, engineer, whatever. Little surprise that, lo-and-behold, our Inboxes become clogged with this type of material. Well, I think you know what I'm going to say here ... bite the bullet and UNSUBSCRIBE from unnecessary subscription newsletters, distribution lists and the like. Help yourself out and work to decrease the number of these type of communications you get by taking this simple action (ok, granted, you've got to go all the way to the bottom of most emails, in the fine or reduced print to find that unsubscribe link ... but it's worth it!).
  • Use your email system's available filters and rules. Most programs are "teachable" in so far as setting rules to route incoming email based on sender or subject so that their automatically routed to sub-folders, sub-directories or even the trash folder (we touched on the use of filters in dealing with email backlogs). Time-savers are available in this area, if you take the time to get familiar with your program's capabililites.
These suggestions definitely aren't exhaustive, but I really believe (and my experience tells me) that if they're weaved into your habit set, they'll help you make a dent in the flurry of digital ammunition flung at you by the The Beast.
 
One final thought ... as David Allen has aptly stated: "getting 'in' empty doesn't mean you've handled everything. It means that you've DELETED what you could, FILED what you wanted to keep but don't need to act on, DONE the less than two-minute responses, and moved into your reminder folders all the things you're waiting for and all your actionable emails."3/ Sure, much of the process described above doesn't "obliterate" all of your email into never-never land ... it's really all about effectively managing and gaining control of what needs to be done with that flood of digital documentation that comes your way. You're redefining what your Inbox represents AND literally and consistently getting that one folder called "Inbox" to zero by ruthlessly engaging in the behaviors outlined above. You do still need to review and execute on the next action decisions and placeholders you've established in your system's digital lists and folders ... but you've gained an added measure of clarity and a more relaxed psyche (that not-so-subtle voice has been hushed), and you have a more complete view of what you should be doing, and not doing. And that will breed confidence and trust that you're engaged in the right things as you move through your day, week and beyond. You're email Inbox is now working with you, not generating friction against you.

That's flying high ... that's working smarter ... that's living better ... that's engaging well with your world. Here's to vanquishing The Beast ... go get 'em Tiger!

Want to learn more about GTD® and our Productivity Coaching? Click Here: Get Productive with GWPS.

Notes:
Illustration at top of article courtesy of C.J. Burton for the Wall Street Journal (as shown in a 4/14/16 WSJ article by Alexandra Samuel"How I Tamed the Email Beast at Work.")
1/ - as similiarly described by Alexandra Samuel in her 4/14/16 WSJ article, "How I Tamed the Email Beast at Work."
2/ - if you'd like to read more on this concept, you can find it in Cal Newport's book "Deep Work," in the chapter entitled Rule #4 - Drain The Shallows , approx. digital copy pgs.168-169.
3/ - from "Getting Things Done, The Art of Stress Free Productivity," by David Allen (approx. pg. 170, digital copy).
 
 
GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company. Graywolf Productivity Solutions, LLC is not affiliated with the David Allen Company.
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About the Author

Harold S. Mars III

HMars1 Reduced 919x1000Harold is a consulting professional well versed in business finance, accounting and the principles of personal productivity, along with the latest in software and web tools available to manage these arenas of life well. He is founder and Chief Productivity Consultant for Graywolf Productivity Solutions LLC, a service entity existing to support those individuals and teams in small and mid-size businesses that desire growth and impact through increased productivity. With seasoned and professional expertise delivered through a personalized and engaging approach, he believes in helping his clients focus on doing what they do best through the use of outstanding business and personal productivity resources.

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