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Inbox Zero: Better Practices for staying (near) zero

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

You've doubtless already discovered your inbox won't stay at zero -- and it shouldn't. As I said yesterday, this is a process, not some miraculous one-time event like a tonsillectomy or a Jandek concert. And you can't just wave a magic wand every couple weeks and make it all go away. Why not use the august occasion of your newly empty inbox as the chance to start mending your ways going forward?

As a person who has done the near-impossible and managed to establish a temporary beachhead against the occupying email army, you are your own best expert in what needs to change to keep things together, but I'd like to share a few things that have helped me stay email-sane (most of the time).

Get less mail

The easiest trick to finding more needles in a haystack is to resist the urge to add unnecessary hay.

Mailing lists, cron jobs, and other robot messages

Consider whether your current collection of elective mailing lists and email notifications has any fat you can trim. Can anything be converted to daily or weekly digests? Can you filter any of the non-critical stuff to get marked as read and then get shunted straight into archives or sub-directories for later perusal and searching? Maybe think about canceling as much stuff as you can stand, and then, after a week or two, return and add back just the ones you really need or most enjoy.

Mail from people

It's trickier to thin the amount of email you get from carbon-based bipeds, but think at a higher level about where you can economize, automate, and filter. For example, if you get a lot of email related to your website, consider adding a web-based form that forces the use of a Subject and encourages your corresponding strangers to keep it short and focused.

Of course, the lion's share of your actionable email will continue to come from work projects and friends, so you may feel like you have relatively little leeway here. Candidly, the easiest trick here may just be to respond less. I'm not saying you should ignore people or blow off clients, but consider the cues that instant, frequent, detailed responses relay to people; one of the best ways to suggest that you want to receive less email is to send less as well.

Breaking the news

And if you're getting boatloads of frequent and lengthy emails from the same few people, consider discussing it with them offline and in the context of the growing demands on both your time. Tell them you love conversing, but that you but need to dial things down a little.

We both get so much email these days that I worry some stuff might be falling between the cracks. Can we agree to compile all our questions and links into one daily email unless there's an emergency?

We get what we're willing to put up with in this world, and whether the volume's coming from your boss or your aunt, there may actually be ways you can improve the health of your relationship (as well as career) by just being honest in the nicest way possible.

That devil, spam

You'll notice I've left spam out of this equation because it's kind of a separate problem from the largely human-generated messages. Still, it doesn't go without saying: install and configure the most brutal spam filtering your career can tolerate. If you're still getting more than a few random spam mails each day, something needs to change. The technology's come a long way in the last 3 years and there's no need (or excuse) to suffer in silence. (More on spam)

Keep less mail (with less futzing)

Some people get really attached to their email. They feel that preserving a 100% record of every communication gives them power, access, and a low-level guarantee of perpetual CYA. Maybe that's a good thing. Or maybe that's just a big, nasty, constantly-refreshed pile of Viparinama-dukkha. Bottom line, in either case: if you're spending more than a few minutes a day filing your email into nested folders or some kind of byzantine system of your own design, you're probably wasting a lot of time.

Modern email clients like Gmail, Mail.app, and Windows' Google desktop search make it very easy to search every email you've ever gotten, so if you can't bear to throw something out, consider just throwing it into one big "Archives" folder and then forgetting about it.

If you discover an actual real-world, non-fantasy need for more than one folder, be very picky about letting your system get at all complicated. Remember how David Allen says to do physical filing: A-Z with the least futzing possible. Between sorting, searching, and Smart Folders, you probably have all the tools you need to keep one archive folder and only one archive folder.

Respond now (or never)

I'm willing to risk repeating myself on this one, because I think it's worth the emphasis.

The only way an email will ever get out of your life (and out of your worrying brain) is to either deal with it or get rid of it. If you're planning to do anything in-between, you should have an explicit understanding of why you're doing so. Any idea which one of these is a particularly shitty idea?

  • I don't have time to answer this now (but I will put it in "Respond to" and answer it within X days)
  • I just need to save this for future reference (so I'll just toss it in my Archive)
  • I need to convert this into an action by the end of the day (so I'll put it in my "Daily Pending" folder)
  • I'm going to just leave this in my inbox and think about it for a few days. Or months. Or years. Who knows?

Touch everything once whenever possible, but even if you're busy, take the extra 2 seconds to consider whether this really has any place in your life. If not, just punt it. Article of Faith #5: "Lying to yourself doesn’t empty an inbox."

'Nuff said.

Schedule email work -- both small and large

Email should not be something you're always doing. Checking email every :59 seconds is tantamount to washing rice one grain at a time. But, by the same token, you need to be dealing with email often enough -- and substantially enough -- that you don't end up with that big old pile again. So consider two time-based adjustments.

First, do limit the number of times you check for and then scan new email throughout each day. I won't repeat myself at length, but setting a schedule to "do email" once an hour and for just a few minutes will be more than enough contact once you recalibrate. Then return to any processed mail through the day and as time allows to work on quickly banging out responses.

Second, build a time-based levee that won't let you ever get this behind again. Using something like smart folders, make it easy to quickly determine which emails are collecting dust. Then either delete them or respond to them immediately. You can do this as often as makes sense to you, but your health and sanity will improve if you never see another procrastinated email that's older than a couple weeks.

Stop thinking of emails like precious family heirlooms, and start treating 'em like pints of milk. Perishable, time-stamped milk that becomes a little less fresh every day until it smells kind of funny and just needs to be dumped. Believe me, there will always be more coming.

Value your time

Platitudes about respecting your time are understandably easy to blow off since they have that citrus-y whiff of "personal development" and "self-help" -- summoning the image of a bunch of sandaled guys with droopy mustaches sitting in a circle, talking about their feelings and weeping.

Well, I promise you, this is some serious, practical, non-hippie advice. It's day-one stuff, kids, because if you don't learn to value your time, you will quickly find a volunteer army of slackers who will be more than happy to help waste it for you. "Time burglars," the newly-efficient Bart Simpson might have called them ("You can't just go off Focusyn!"). Email is the most dependable modern location to witness your time being frittered away by strangers, but you are now officially Vice-President in Charge of Ensuring That Your Time is Not Wasted by Strangers. Congratulations on the promotion.

This also means not half-assing the attention you pay to the task at hand; do email when you do email -- don't just flip through it while thinking about Lost or fretting over your thinning hairline or wondering how you'll paper train your new Labradoodle, Barney. Take these tasks seriously, and stop depending on email as your fickle source for status, affection, and thumb exercises.

And, friends, whenever you start to notice that the prospect of new email has begun reclaiming bits of your attention while you're doing other things (yes, there actually are other things), fight the urge to tear ass over to your email program "just to check in." You'll only get good at this stuff when you have the presence of mind to notice, acknowledge, and combat the behaviors that got you in a bad way in the first place.

Tomorrow morning, we'll really really wrap things up with an Open Thread for you guys to share your best tricks for Inbox Zero.

Until then, maybe think about three cool things you could do if you spent three less hours playing with your email this week. That'd eventually add up to a surplus 150 hours each year.

When you start paying yourself in time, those minutes here and there start seeming a lot more valuable, don't they?

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.”




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