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Inbox Zero: Processing to zero
Merlin Mann | Mar 27 2006
This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.
The truth is that you probably can take the average email inbox -- even a relatively neglected one -- from full to zero in about 20 minutes. It mostly depends on how much you really want to be done with it. The dirty little secret, of course, is that you don't do it by responding to each of those emails but by ruthlessly processing them. Is that how you thought this worked? Answering 500 emails in 20 minutes? Jeez, it's no wonder you're such a mess. Your cognitive dissonance is epic.
Here's the deal: your email has been accumulating because you don't have the time to answer it properly, which is certainly reasonable and accurate. You also fear losing track of the email you haven't responded to -- that it will fall between the cracks. This fear is also reasonable and accurate. But you're just as keenly aware that with the backlog of email you have plus the increasing rate of incoming messages you receive each day, you can't possibly ever catch up. This, sadly, is also entirely reasonable and accurate. It's all reasonable and it's all accurate, but come on: something's gotta give.
You rewrite the rules. You adapt at a higher level. You have to, or else the Klingons will overwhelm you with their superior fire power and brute force -- and then your email would remain unanswered for eternity. Think how sad that would be.
The other day over on the board, we were talking about "triage" and how our meaning of it in personal productivity evolves out of battlefield (or emergency room) assessments of the best way -- at that given moment and considering myriad factors -- to do the most with limited resources and a theoretically unlimited demand for them:
That's how I see it anyway. The more email you have been neglecting in your inbox, the more drastic and ruthless your processing must be. If you've got more than a few hundred messages in the backlog, I wouldn't even think about responding just yet (we'll agree to disagree in this instance, David Allen). Even applying GTD's "two minute rule" you might be looking at hours and hours of response time on top of your more-important culling, thinning, and deleting. Use your judgement about whatever best removes your blocks and gets you through the pile with your sanity intact.
Personally, I'd concentrate first on just processing based on a battlefield "biage" (is that even a word?). Delete the obvious spam, chain letters, and kitty photos. Archive the mailing lists and blog comments (sorting by subject is great for this), all the while identifying, flagging, and relocating all the actual important stuff to a "pending" folder -- that's the stuff that will take your real brain power and valuable time. Just get that sucker down to zero now. Fast. Go.
Only when you're at zero do you return to "pending," concentrating on short responses and generation of to-dos. Gang your work, stay in one mode, and if you start getting exhaustipated, just take a break and return by running dashes 3-5 times a day.
Understand: if you've really let things go, you ain't gonna hit bottom in any 20 minutes. But be patient, and keep your eyes on the prize. This is annoying, time-consuming, mentally draining work, but as you see that count dropping and dropping, you'll find unbelievable energy and resolve; you'll be deleting faster and realizing that all you keep is really valuable and worthy of your time. This feels so good that you'll never want to go back. But if you do, just get back on the horse. Process, process.
My Mail.app responding trick
This is something I use for getting through mail that's already been processed but needs a true response or external action. It'd be easy enough for you to adapt to your dusty inbox. Like most hacks, it's just a stupid mind game, but it totally works for me. Try it if you're stuck.
I've created four Smart Folders in Mail.app that provide a graded ramp to clearing out my disused "To Respond" folder. The names are my own. They have no actual effect on the trick, but they make me laugh, and sometimes, when I'm really behind, I need that sorely.
When you're ready to start processing your months and months of email, write this on an index card in big block letters, and put it on the wall behind your screen at eye level:
You'll never stay ahead of this stuff if you don't recalibrate starting today. Give each message as much attention as it needs and not one iota more. Remember the contextuality of triage: if you keep trying to care for dead and doomed patients, you'll end up losing a lot of the ones who could have actually used your help.
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