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Inbox Zero: What have you learned?

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

Bruce Schneier once famously said, "Security is a process, not a product," and the same is true of the zero inbox (and personal productivity, writ large, come to think of it). It's nice to think that occasional bursts of focused productivity work can save us from electronic chaos, but the truth is more shaded, and it requires that you adopt a more challenging level of engagement than simply oscillating between "ignore" and "freak out."

But you tell me; as you've worked to get to "zero," did you notice anything interesting or useful? Any patterns emerge? Any unexpected thematic repetitions show up? Any unusual behaviors take shape as you got into the groove? Because, given the large sample set of unanswered messages most of us have to begin with, it's typical to reach a few telling conclusions about email's role in your life.

Was the anxiety worth it?

First, as you trudged through hundreds or thousands of jurassic messages, you may have noticed that most of your email is not only ephemeral -- relating to something that's only relevant for a short time -- but that a lot of it is remarkably unimportant, overheated, overlong, and, in retrospect, altogether unnecessary. But it sure didn't seem like that at the time, did it?

The always-on mindset trains you to spring to attention whenever that "new mail" tone rings. It suggests that you're some kind of email fire fighter, and that ringing alarm lets you know it's always time to suit up and jump on the truck. The adrenaline surges. Trouble is, a lot of the time your shiny red truck arrives just to discover a kitty in a tree or even just a false alarm. Be honest -- in the cold light of hindsight, how many of your messages were 5-alarm fires, and how many were kitties in a tree?

More importantly today, how much of your anxiety about unanswered messages was based on a lot of dead or just stupid stuff?

Modal flow is your path out

And how about once you started answering all the messages that just needed a quick response. If you did as I suggested and stayed in one mode at a time (Just delete and process, then just respond and generate actions), you doubtless found 5- or 10-minute periods where you were remarkably productive. Did you find yourself single-mindedly focused on retiring as many messages as you could? Given the permission to just blaze through, did you find yourself enjoying getting these out of your way with one-line responses and liberal use of the delete key? Sure you did. It feels awesome.

It feels great to suck less

And, finally, once you saw all your inbox, pending, and respond-to folders completely empty, did you notice a strange and unfamiliar sensation? Like someone just lifted a piano off your foot? That relief and sense of relaxation is the cookie your brain gives you for finally taking responsibility for the stuff it does badly. As David Allen says, your mind doesn't have a mind; it only has you. The two of you have to work out a sensible way to share the load, or else every new item in your life will instantly be converted into an anxiety. And anxieties like nothing better than forming street gangs and spreading large-scale procrastination.

So, if you're like me and most other people, you've learned four things:

  • You've been blowing a lot of time, anxiety, and adrenaline on stupid bullshit.
  • Fast processing and quick responding are the ninja email moves.
  • Your brain gives you treats when you stop making it worry all the time.
  • You can beat this game, but you have to recalibrate now.

Try to learn from what you've just experienced, and reapply your new wisdom to the way you treat email every day -- nay, every time that little "new mail" chime sounds. You've just come out the other side of productivity bankruptcy and have, perhaps for the first time, a clean record and a fresh start.

Think about how you might be able to adjust your attitudes and behavior to avoid needing this kind of invasive surgery six months from now. And tune in tomorrow for the final posts on Inbox Zero: "Better Practices" for staying at Zero, plus an open thread for you all to share anything I missed -- your best tricks for staying sane and maintaining a healthy relationship with that devil inbox.

But, for today, just be proud of yourself. You identified a huge problem in your life and then did something hard and annoying to fix it. You rule.

TOPICS: Email, Tips

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:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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