43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Inbox Zero: Processing to zero

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.

Like Kirk's "solution" to the Kobayashi Maru Scenario, there's an easy but non-obvious way to win at this Catch-22: you cheat. You don't answer them all. Not even most of them.

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:

I think the roots of the term are indeed in medicine, where patients are dealt with based on one of three (hence, "tri") statuses: those who can survive with immediate help, those who can wait, and those who won't make it no matter what.

The fascinating thing to me about the metaphor is that the status of one patient is almost always necessarily based on the status of the others, and new additions re-jigger the equation. Just like in to-do lists.

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.

  1. Peel Slowly & See
    • Smart Folder Rules:
      • Date received is in the last 2 days
      • Message is flagged
      • Message is in Mailbox "To Respond"
    • Usual load: 20 emails
    • Time to completion: ~30 minutes
    • Very recent email that I can feel like a hero for answering immediately. I start here as an emotional down payment, since they're also the messages I have the least guilt about -- and, consequently, the least resistance to reading and answering.
  2. Recent and Saveable!
    • Smart Folder Rules:
      • Date received is in the last 5 days
      • Message is flagged
      • Message is in Mailbox "To Respond"
    • Usual load: 50 emails
    • Time to completion: ~60 minutes
    • Here's where I go next. Email that's only a few days old, so I don't completely suck yet. I can imply that I was trapped in a Turkish prison, appearing on a reality TV show, or even just try to play it off legit.
  3. The Innocence Project
    • Smart Folder Rules:
      • Date received is between 5 and 60 days
      • Message is flagged
      • Message is in Mailbox "To Respond"
    • Usual load: 100 emails
    • Time to completion: 2 hours - never
    • This is where it gets really hard: the true Procrastination Zone. These people probably hate me, but you never know -- they might be delighted just to learn I'm still alive. Effort concentrated here yields outsize dividends.
  4. Euthanasia
    • Smart Folder Rules:
      • Date received is greater than 60 days
      • Message is flagged
      • Message is in Mailbox "To Respond"
    • Usual load: 10-20 emails
    • Time to completion: Usually? 1 second.
    • That's right. I delete them. Does this make me a bad person? Only for a second. Then I'm right back in the "Recent" folders saving the ones I can -- hoping they never make it into the Euthanasia ward. The point is: this is where I draw the line in the sand -- it's the absolute last chance for a response. They either get it now or never. That's how you stay sane. Just move on.

Last tip

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:

Think in shovels
not in teaspoons.

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.

Traces.. » Inbox to Zero's picture

[...] http://www.43folders.com/2006/03/27/process-to-zero/ [...]

[...] http://www.43folders.com/2006/03/27/process-to-zero/ [...]




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »