The Blog

Dec 3, 2008

Zen and the Art of an Empty Inbox 

by Maxim Porges @ 10:18 PM | Link | Feedback (0)

Something I struggled with for years after I became a manager was how to deal with the metric assload of email I would receive on a daily basis. Over time, I have developed a strategy for dealing with email that works as well for 200 emails per day as it does for 10. Since I know more than a few people who struggle with their email volume, I thought I would share my process. I apologize for the length of this post, but I wanted to explain the philosophy behind the system as well as the system itself.

A full (and constantly growing) inbox is a major source of stress for most managers working in an office environment. The psychological effect of seeing your email grow each day is the same one you would get watching a physical inbox fill with items requiring your attention; you always feel "behind", unproductive, and like there is no end in sight. There is also a negative impact on individual effectiveness for both the email hoarder and their staff, since so much communication takes place in email these days; you can easily end up missing/delaying response to important items if you are always behind on reading your emails.

Much of what I practice can be gleaned from the basic principles of GTD. I bought the GTD book for $6 in a CompUSA store that was going out of business, and stopped reading it after the first few chapters since I had picked up enough useful info to establish a working system.

So, here it is.

My email/task management system is based on the following principles.

1) Email is for communication, information, and CYA. It is not for task or to-do tracking.
A lot of people fall in to this trap, using email as a way to indicate that something still needs to be done. This is often achieved by setting emails back to "unread" status if they need to be done/referred to later. Other methods include using subfolder structures or color/project tagging to organize email. Unfortunately, since email is a communication tool and not a task management tool, this technique often doesn't really work.

We'll come back to how to deal with email effectively, but the essence to take away at this point is that you should not use email in any way to track tasks or to-dos.

2) All emails fall in to three categories: things to do, things to delegate, and things to delete/file for later reference
There's not much to expand on here. Take a look at your inbox and see if you can find anything that doesn't fall in to one of these categories; if so, let me know in the comments.

In order to keep your inbox empty (and thus eliminate the "full inbox stress" you are feeling), you need to quickly go through your emails, identify each message's category, and act upon each accordingly.

3) Your inbox should always be empty, except for when you are filtering emails in to one of the categories mentioned in item #2
If you think this is an impossible feat, think again. I went from having around 500 unread emails at any one time to my current state, which is a near-constant state of inbox emptiness and a feeling of total control over my email. I don't care how much email you get or how infrequently you look at it; you can use the techniques I describe to get it under control and keep it that way. I used to get 200+ emails a day at CFI, and was able to handle them with ease.

And yes, this does mean that when you start to implement my approach to email management, you will have to burn four hours on a Saturday cleaning out your inbox in preparation for keeping it empty moving forward.

Believe me: it's worth doing.

The System
The system works as follows. I expect there are variations of this approach that you can use for your own email management based upon the mail client at your disposal, but this is how I do it.

1) Tasks Belong in Calendars
An essential part of the process is to use a calendaring system to take deferred action rather than using your email to track things to do. Every email that results in a "do" item for you should immediately be converted in to either a task or appointment on your calendar.

Note that it is just as important to schedule appointments for yourself to do things as it is to schedule meetings with others, and I have found this to be an important step in managing my own time. The same way that you should always pay yourself first by putting some of your paycheck in to savings before you pay your bills, you should also mark your time off first before offering it up to others for their meetings.

2) Always empty your inbox when mail arrives
As soon as you see that you have email, you need to deal with it and put it in to the "do", "delegate", or "delete" category. Usually I find that I stay focused on a work task for a period of time, and then look up when taking a break to see that I have new email.

One of the great GTD principles I picked up is to immediately perform all tasks that can be done in less than five minutes; emptying your inbox falls in to this category. And, emptying your inbox is easy to do: go through all the emails one by one, and read them in their entirety. If you need to reply, do it immediately. As your inbox empties, you will find that you get used to sending short, fast responses 90% of the time.

3) Do small tasks right away
If you come across an email that is a "do" item and it will take less than five minutes and you have the time, do it then and there. If the item requires more time than five minutes or you are about to step out for a meeting, put the item on your to-do list and schedule it for a day in the future. Juggle existing tasks for that day by priority as necessary, pushing lower priority items to a later date.

Immediately delete the email that spawned the to-do, or file it (if you need to refer to it later) and reference the subject line in your calendar task so you can find the email when you are ready to perform the task. Some programs even allow you to link to-dos to emails - even better.

4) Read and discard (or file) informational emails
If the email is informational and requires no action, read it and delete it. If you want to save it for later, file it and forget about it.

5) Immediately delegate tasks. Track completion as necessary
Knowing when to delegate can be tough, but I generally delegate anything that is clearly the responsibility of a peer or one of my reports. The act of delegation is simply a forwarding of/replying to the message with the task that needs to be delegated.

If you delegate a hot topic that requires action, put a to-do on your calendar to follow up with the person you delegated it to at an appropriate junction. Delete the original email.

6) Live in your calendar
Since you have created a bunch of tasks/appointments in your calendar from your email, you have benefitted in several ways already: your staff/peers/customers got fast responses, your inbox is clear (so you don't feel stressed out any more), and you have a clear feeling of how much you personally have to do. Also, since calendars track date assignments to tasks, you can evenly distribute the load/priority order of the things that need doing.

I find that each day, I filter my calendar view to just the things that (a) need doing that day and (b) were supposed to be done yesterday (or on days prior) but were not. This allows me to stay focused, and quickly decide if I have too much on my plate for the day. If I have too much, I defer low priority tasks to the next day and forget about them until I see them again.

So you might say: "haven't you just shifted too much email to too many tasks?" Not really. If I see a task continuing to float around, I don't get upset about it. If it hasn't been done yet it probably isn't that important, or I would have done it already, and at least I know it is on my radar. However, I will often reconsider a long-existing task's importance altogether and either delegate it or just plain get rid of it if it has floated around too long. You will be surprised how many items you think you need to do that either become unimportant with time, or can live with being pushed back because they just aren't that important to you or anybody else.

There are a few specific tools/techniques I use that really help me stay focused on this approach to my email.

Smart Folders
I use OS X Mail, which has Smart Folders. Smart Folders are rules-based folders, which filter your email for you by criteria. I have four Smart Folders set up: "Unread (Work)", "Unread (Personal)", "Unread (All)", and "Flagged".

"Unread (Work)" is the top priority when I am in the office. Anything that shows up in here is obliterated in to "do", "delegate", or "delete" as soon as I see it. Once I clear my work emails, I will clear out my personal emails if any have come in and I have time; if not, I make a conscious effort to look at the personal folder at least once a day since I don't get as much email there. "Unread (All)" is a great way to obliterate all my emails (work and personal) if I don't have very many to go through.

Note that my personal Smart Folder consolidates all the emails from all my personal email accounts, so to me they all look the same. Having all my work and personal emails come in to the same mail client really makes staying focused easy; I tried separating them in the past, and found I just ended up getting behind on my personal email. One client to rule them all is the best approach.

"Flagged" picks up all the emails that I flag in Mail (there is only one flag, and an email is either flagged or unflagged). I use this designation for emails that look interesting but don't require any attention or action, such as links from co-workers about technology articles that are unrelated to immediate concerns. I usually go through this folder on weekend mornings as I catch up on my RSS feeds. However, since these emails don't show up as "Unread" they don't stress me out - and if I never read them, nobody cares.

We get an awful lot of automated emails at Highwinds. The biggest offenders here are from our ticketing and bug tracking systems. I have set up Mail and our Exchange mail server to straight delete about 30% of these emails that I have identified to be of zero value to me, and which don't require my attention or action.

Of the remaining 70%, many of the items are conversation threads between clients and our support team. Mail allows me to group email by thread, but this is a view that generally bothers me. Luckily, Mail remembers my preference to group emails by thread on a per-folder basis. So, I leave all my folders ungrouped except for the one folder that gets all of our support tickets and bug notifications. Then, since these threads are grouped, I can easily delete all the emails for a thread that I have no interest/involvement in, and easily read the entire timeline for the issues that I want to be involved in. Sometimes I will delete an entire thread of 15 emails in one go based upon a subject line, which allows me to make short work of the 200 or so emails I get each day from these systems.

I use iCal for calendaring. It doesn't sync with Exchange (at least, not until Snow Leopard in 2009), but it has great to-do tracking and a very clean UI. You can also easily make a to-do from an email, although this is a new feature for Leopard and I always forget to do this since I was used to making to-dos the old way.

I maintain two calendars: work and personal. This seems to be plenty to organize my life. I have tried using multiple calendars to differentiate projects before, and found that to be a dismal failure - simple is best.

Powerful Search
One of the reasons I can calmly dismiss the majority of my email is that Mail has such bad-ass search capabilities. I can usually search my entire inbox and all my folders in under five seconds, which gives me complete confidence in either trashing stuff or whimsically filing potentially important emails.

I also tend to leave emails in my inbox (in "read" status) if I know that I will need them later; I can't see them, since I only look at my Smart Folders, and my Smart Folders only show unread items, so as far as I am concerned they are dealt with and they don't stress me out. I have to leave items in my inbox since I have my trash set up to automatically delete anything that was trashed and is older than seven days. The point is that "out of sight is out of mind", and since I can find anything super-fast, I can easily look up an old email in my inbox related to a task without having to link the task to the referenced email.

In Closing
I know this has been a long blog post, so congratulations if you made it through it. I hope you will give my system a try, and/or come up with a variant that works for you. You have no idea how much better you will feel with an empty inbox!