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Inbox Zero: Articles of faith

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

When I first suggested the email DMZ and said there was a way to get your inbox to zero in 20 minutes, I wasn't lying. But I was using a definition of "empty" that may not square with your current conception of the email world. So let's start with a few of my own articles of faith to ensure we're on the same page going forward.

Some messages are more equal than others

First, not all email messages are created equal. In fact, understanding that a handful of messages in any given day are far more important and timely than all of the others combined is perhaps the most important place to start if you ever want to see your inbox fit onto one screen again.

You have no control over the world's demands on your time and attention, yet you are the single person who has any choice over how you deal with it. That's a lot of responsibility.

Have your skills and attitude about email demonstrably evolved since your earliest days on the internet, AOL, CompuServe, The Well, or what have you? If you still treat every email in your growing inbox like a Christmas present that must be savored, it might be time to get a bit lighter on your feet.

Your time is priceless (and wildly limited)

Second, there is no way you will ever be able to respond to -- let alone read in exquisite detail -- every email you ever receive for the rest of your life. If you take issue with this, just wait six months, because, believe me, we're all getting a lot more email (and other sundry demands on our attention) every day. What seems like a doddle today is going to get progressively more difficult -- even insurmountable -- unless you put a realistic system in place now.

Like learning to save money or driving a stick, the earlier you start slavishly guarding your time, the easier the habit becomes. There's no need to be ashamed of admitting you aren't perfect and can't do everything flawlessly all the time -- this is an outmoded conceit that very few of us can afford any more.

Accept that your workload exceeds your resources -- that you are the first and last filter for what deserves your time -- and you'll already be better off than you were even two minutes ago.

Less can be so much more

I used to think one-line email responses were the height of rudeness. If someone took the time to type me a 20-paragraph email, I always felt I had to respond in kind. It's like that horrible feeling at the holiday gift exchange when you realize that the present you brought cost a tenth of what your colleague spent. Well, get over it, because it ain't the same thing.

In an environment where attention is the economic equivalent of cash, you aren't doing people any favors by sending gothic novels. And taking your cues for etiquette, propriety, and efficiency on a message-by-message basis will quickly land you in a very bouncy room with a fresh box of crayons.

You need an agnostic system for dealing with mail that isn't based on nonces, exceptions, and guilt. Truthfully, once you get really fast and ruthless at processing the crap and benching the runners-up, you'll actually have vastly more time to write the long personal emails you enjoy.

But that does require you to not behave like every message you get is the internet equivalent of an engagement ring. Let go, already.

Lose the guilt

Speaking of letting go, let's draw a line in the sand right now.

If you've allowed your email to get out of control, and you can trace any of the resulting procrastination and inaction back to feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, or just the general feeling that you alone completely suck at this, quit it now.

You are so not alone. Everyone I know (including me) is overwhelmed with email and unsure of how to make it better in a given day. Beating yourself up about it is the worst thing you can do, since it just reinforces the core fears and anxieties that kept you from dealing with the problem in the first place (buy this book, dammit). So, seriously, starting now, lose the emotions and the hairshirt, and just get ready for a lot of good old-fashioned action. But before we get there...

Lying to yourself doesn't empty an inbox

There's a kind of personal honesty that you're going to need by the caseload if you want to seriously get a handle on this stuff -- honesty about true priorities, realistic time expectations, and a baseline gutcheck on what you really intend to do about any given message.

Like corporate web redesigns and planning large weddings, this process may end up teaching you a lot more about yourself and your world than you had expected. Since email is the primary touchpoint for most of our business and personal communication, it also can be a powerfully emotional tool. Admitting you simply don't have the time to participate in a 10-times-daily email exchange with someone is difficult to admit. But what's the alternative?

The answer is waiting in your inbox, where hundreds or perhaps thousands of messages have now accumulated because you either don't know what to do with them -- or more likely won't admit what you know should be done with them.

Cue the theme from Rocky

Magical thinking and old habits have not worked for you. Pretending that you can spontaneously generate extra hours each day or that elves will sweep in to tell your Aunt to knock off the CC'd kitty photos hasn't worked so far either. And if it has, you don't need my help. More power to you (and to those handy little elves).

Straight up: I'm about to go Burgess Meredith on your ass, because a lot of these tips are going to seem pretty brutal. Your email program is not a toy or mama's loving teat -- it's a powerful tool for communicating with strangers and friends across the world. And if you want to stop being part of the dolorous majority whose ass is getting kicked by email every day, it's time to get serious about improving your habits. And that starts with changing your attitude.


About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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