How many clothes are in your hamper right now? Are you desperately trying to make sure that not a single dirty sock is sitting in there?
Unless you have OCD or are running low on underwear, you’re probably not too concerned about the clothes sitting unattended in your hamper — I’d have very little traction advocating a Hamper Zero program. When it comes to laundry, we intuitively understand that spending a lot of time making sure there are no unwashed clothes in our hampers would be counterproductive.
Yet many of us don’t make this translation when it comes to email. We forget that email is just a component of our work, and in many cases, there are far more important things for us to do than clear each and every email message out of our Inboxes. What we fail to factor in is…
Inbox Zero Gets Us in a Loop
Let’s take a second to think about some of those recalcitrant emails that manage to gum up our Inboxes and that actually require a response from us.
Some of those messages are of the simple research variety, in that to get rid of them, you need to click on a link and read something. While these seem easy enough on the face of it, the real issue comes not from the individual email itself but the fact that it starts you on the Loop. A link here takes you there, and there’s an interesting link there, so you post it on Twitter, and while you’re on Twitter, you start a conversation, and someone shares a link with you, so you check that out, and then someone DMs you or sends you a quick email in response to the conversation you just had … and all the while, you’re no further ahead in your email clearing process. Quite the contrary: you’ve probably made it worse and you’re now 15-30 minutes behind.
But let’s remember that you’re in the Loop not because you wanted to be there, but because you reached a point at which your impulse was to get to zero messages in your Inbox. This is like starting by washing that one dirty sock but ending up cleaning your whole house while you were waiting on that sock to wash and dry.
And those were emails of the easy variety.
Getting Lost in Context Switches
Some of your email messages may require you to do something away from your computer. For instance, a bill reminder may prompt you to walk in another room and grab the bill, your checkbook, an envelope, and a stamp so that you can put the bill in the mail. In case you’re curious here, I’m being fairly detailed about what it takes not because I’m purposefully going out of my way to bore you, but because each separate thing that you’re required to do provides a place for you to get distracted.
For instance, you might open your checkbook, only to realize that you’re out of checks and have to go get more. When you open the drawer where you keep your extra checks, you get annoyed because you’ve been throwing receipts in that drawer and they’re starting to get out of control because you haven’t processed them in the last three months. As you rifle through the receipts to find your checks, you stumble across those business cards you stuffed in there to get them off of your table, which reminds you that you need to process them, too…
You’ve just stumbled onto the analog version of the Loop, and while you’re not prone to start behaviors that lead to more emails in your Inbox, you’re not making a lot of progress on clearing your Inbox, either. And while you’re fussing with receipts, the clock is ticking and the emails are a’coming.
Giving Email the Best You’ve Got
The last class of email messages that I’ll talk about in this post are the ones that require you to do some creative work to process them. For instance, a client sends you a quote request, and before you can reply, you have to evaluate the project, write some stuff up, and prepare an invoice, outside of handling the email message itself.
The worry with these messages isn’t that they’ll start you on a Loop, but that completing them will take up some of your precious creative time blocks that may be better spent on something else. You may look up and realize that a significant chunk of your day has been taken up processing email messages that didn’t need to be processed today, yet you have other time-sensitive things that do need to be processed still waiting to be done.
Creative peaks and Eureka! moments are precious, and you probably wouldn’t start washing that one dirty sock — or whole loads of socks — during them. The same reasons you’d wait to do your laundry apply to the way you process email.
Inbox Zero Can Make Us Lose Sight of the Bigger Picture
The heart of the matter here is that, though there are many more important things that could be done, being overly determined to get to a clear Inbox can be counterproductive precisely because it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Let me be clear: I appreciate and celebrate an empty Inbox as much as the next person, and my own email management strategies do focus on keeping as few messages in there as possible. I’m also not suggesting that you let your email build up just to let it build up.
What I’m suggesting is that your email management technique should fit the holistic context of your work. (Tweet this)
If you’ve taken care of the time-sensitive email messages that you need to, and you have to choose between clearing out your Inbox and creating something meaningful, you’re probably better off creating something meaningful. If your muses aren’t cooperating and you’re still willing and able to process email, then by all means, process away.
This is why I emphasize that Email Triage is not an Inbox Zero program, nor is it explicitly about keeping any particular number of messages in your Inbox; and when I say “Inbox Zero,” I don’t specifically mean the process Merlin Mann advocated, but am referring to the idea that having a clear Inbox is a particularly desirable end state. Instead, Email Triage is about getting to a place of calmness, clarity, and perspective about what’s going on in there so that you can make more grounded choices about what you want to work on, rather than having overwhelm and stress keep you in that frustrating middle-ground where you’re able to neither process your email nor clear-headedly work on something else.
My level of comfort means that I start getting edgy when I have more than 20 messages that require responses from me — your tolerance may be at 5 or 50. However, the end state is finding the balance that helps you do what you need to do, when you need to do it.
When you have enough clothes to get a good load of laundry in, then go ahead and wash them. But don’t let a few dirty socks in the hamper drive you loopy.
Would you like to hear more about effective email habits that don’t require you to watch your Inbox like a hawk? Check out Email Triage — it’s a product I designed that teaches you how to make rapid, effective decisions about what to do with what you have in your Inbox.
Great post. I have definitely gotten caught up in the Loop you describe. Interesting that twitter was in your example – that and facebook are always the places where I go to check one thing, then awake with a start 20 minutes later! (And, guess what? I came to this post via twitter.)
My way of coming to terms with the inbox is a fairly strict rule the pile of mail can’t go below the horizon in my inbox. That’s about 20 messages. When messages start to sink below the horizon and are at risk of out-of-sight, out-of-mind sydrome, I will take a few minutes to deal with some, or flag them and move them to the appropriate folder to be dealt with when I’m working on the related project. This has worked very well for me, with one exception. That is my To Read folder, where most of my newsletters go automatically via outlook rule. That one is currently at… let’s see…. 418 unread messages. Oh well, at least I haven’t let any client or friend down by ignoring them.
Martha Carnahan says
Anne, I am in about the same boat. I am now pretty consistently keeping my inbox down to about 20 or fewer (I like your “horizon” metaphor!). But my “Newsletter” box… yikes! And I absolutely, truly do get great info from most of those (I have unsubbed to those I don’t get value from anymore). Somehow… I need to create space in my day or week just for reading time. (See, I can do laundry in the background of other chores, but reading takes more focus for me.)
.-= Martha Carnahan´s last blog ..Are You Really Ready for the Economic UPturn? =-.
Janet Bailey says
Well, I can get caught in the Loop even without any Inbox Zero push! I’m actually in the midst of experimenting with Inbox Zero, just to find out whether it’s worth it. I’m hypothesizing that an empty inbox can be successfully maintained without Loopiness if (a) you don’t worry about emptying it all the time, but rather once a day (this is what Mark Hurst recommends in Bit Literacy); (b) you’re honest about how long dealing with a given email is going to take; (c) if it’s going to take longer than a minute or two, you turn it into a to-do rather than dealing with it then and there. And I should add (d), Zero shouldn’t be treated as some kind of holy grail. I agree that creating something meaningful needs to take precedence…otherwise Inbox Zero becomes just another way to avoid the more challenging tasks that matter.
Mark Caldwell says
Not to sound to much like a Merlin Mann fan, but you may not have seen all the writings/talks on this topic. As I have seen, and practice, it’s not about returning your email to zero every time an email comes in but a way to process your work to completion. The first thing I learned about inbox zero is to check your inbox much less frequently just like you point out in your post “Stop Checking Email”. To continue with the laundry analogy, and maybe turn it around: most people don’t do laundry as every sock builds up, but you also don’t want to do only 80% of the laundry basket every time you check it because some of the clothes may really start to stink that never get touched at the bottom. I think the two types of people that agree/disagree with this method are the ones that do/don’t use there inbox as their task list. I like to get actual tasks out of my inbox and in to places that I can deal with them like calendars and to-do lists. Some things like inbox zero may work real well for some, just maybe not all.
I don’t really think a zero inbox is overrated. There are a couple issues at hand. One is the ‘loop’ problem you talk about. It’s unfair to say you get caught in a loop. That kind of negates responsibility. If we get trapped in a loop it’s our own doing.
In your example of finding the checkbook there’s a larger issue. The person gets caught up in a loop partly because he or she is frickin’ disorganized. And that’s the key.
Not to get too David Allen here…..but it is insanely beneficial to get what you have to do out of your head and into a system. It doesn’t mean being a productivity super robot, but it does require you to develop systems. I think zero inbox is a good system. You should be able to look at the e-mail that has a link in it and know that you may spend 20 minutes on it. File it in a ‘to do’ folder…..or delete it. I’m a huge fan of purging. If it’s not going to bring any value to me now or later, I delete it.
Also, this speaks to people who live by their inboxes. It almost controls them. I take a more pro-active approach. I’ll check my e-mail at various times during the day. I delete garbage, respond to actions that take no more than a few minutes and then file away other e-mails in a system that works for me.
If you’re the kind of person who responds to e-mail as they come in then you’re already screwed. You probably aren’t spending your time on valuable activities because you’re waiting for the work to come to you instead of deciding what you should be working on right now. Once you flip that work process on its head (which takes time) you’ll be amazed at how much freedom you feel and how much more productive you are.
@Anne: My process is very similar. Since I use Gmail, though, it takes a long time for it to fold, but it’s basically to the point where I can “feel” how many messages are sitting in there. An advantage to Gmail is the nested conversations thing, which really helps keep it clear that it one conversational thread isn’t a bunch of discrete messages that require some action.
@Martha: Here’s something you might want to try for your newsletters: take a notecard and write “Read Newsletters” on it, and place it somewhere in your visual field. Also, put “Read Newsletters” on your ToDo list on a day that you can actually do it. A large part of what’s going on is that you’re not thinking about them, and since you’re not thinking about them, you’re not deciding to do them. Making them “tangible” may help – and putting them on your ToDo list would go a long way, too.
@Janet: I agree with you, especially about (d), which is actually what this post is talking about. I didn’t make it clear that I was talking more about the mentality than the actual process. Let me know how it works for you!
@Mark: I agree with most of what you say actually, and when I woke up this morning, I knew I needed to edit the post to be clear that I wasn’t talking specifically about Merlin Mann’s work; much like GTD, Inbox Zero has grown beyond the actual process and instead can sometimes mean the mindset, which is what I was referencing.
What I particularly agree with you about, though, is “a way to process your work to completion,” but I try to remind people that we need to think about all of our work, and not just email. And when I talk about doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, I mean washing those stinky clothes rather than letting them funk up your house.
I’m a huge Merlin Mann fan and really respect the work he’s done. In many ways, he’s one of the people that has inspired me to create this blog in the first place.
@Nate: I think there are two main differences between what we’re thinking: 1) a lot of what happens when we’re processing email is habitual, and 2) we have to fix this plane while we’re flying it. Let me show how this bears out.
In a sense, it’s our own doing. But, in another sense, it’s the habit at play. If our drive is to get a clear Inbox, the actions that support that will tend to lead us to attempt to process every email, which requires deciding on those that get us caught in the loop. Rather than make a decision on each, I’m advocating looking at them in the context of your work. If they don’t need to be acted upon, then they can sit.
And yes, the checkbook example highlights someone’s disorganization, but we have to address where people are, not where they ideally would be. Ideally, we wouldn’t need to take the weekend off to clean up our stuff to do a complete mental sweep, but the David recognizes that in both his major books. We differ in that I’d rather help people make incremental changes that get them where they want to be, rather than call timeout to get them started “right.”
I could go on here, especially about what we want our systems to look like, but I agree with much of the rest of what you’re saying.
Definitely agreed! I don’t think we’re as far off as you think. I’m all for incremental change as opposed to a huge h-bomb to a person’s current system and going all crazy GTD. That would be kind of like going from not doing any cardio to doing a marathon….it wouldn’t work. For me, going to a zero inbox has been hugely beneficial. It’s not necessarily the end that has helped me (zero inbox), it’s the process I took to get there that really helped me change the way I do work. I think that’s the important part and it I will be unique to every person.
Ali Hale says
I definitely recognise The Loop (though for me, it’s usually from clicking on links in Twitter).
For some reason, when I’m at home and “working”, I feel the need to check emails and respond quickly — especially if I know I’m waiting on a reply to something. When I’m out all day without email access (Wednesdays), I barely think about my inbox! So I guess part of the problem is that it’s akin to having your laundry hamper sitting in the middle of your office, with your dirty socks just a lid-opening away…
I also find myself “checking email” (yes, for no real reason) when I’m stuck or idling.
With newsletters, I’m VERY picky about what I subscribe to, and I unsubscribe ruthlessly if I end up not reading several in a row. (Charlie, you’re still on my whitelist ;-))
Generally, I find the best way to get my good creative hours in is to work on my major tasks (usually my novel and various blog posts) during the morning, avoiding opening my inbox until some solid work’s been done!
.-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..More For Your Money – Free Ebook! =-.
Jonathan Vaudreuil says
I agree with what’s been suggested on the balance between Inbox Zero and not killing yourself over it. I tend to sort through e-mail daily a few times, and as much as I like having no unread messages I’m fine with not getting to every message every day.
The key for me is the balance. I treat work and personal e-mail differently. Work e-mail I skim for what I need to read. Personal e-mail I keep adding filters to help me sort it faster. At this point I get Inbox Zero once or twice each month, enough to make e-mail tolerable.
Balance is definitely the key.
.-= Jonathan Vaudreuil´s last blog ..Building loyalty over satisfaction =-.
This. Post. Rocks.
And since, like lots of folks, wrangling my inbox can feel like a major challenge, I totally appreciate this post.
I’ve felt a certain pressure to achieve the whole Inbox Zero thing. And I never have. Not once.
And though I hadn’t put it together in my head, this is one reason why your Email Triage works so well for me. I can do what makes sense and what works, even if that means I have 43 or 82 or 247 messages left in my inbox when I’m finished.
And the Hamper Zero bit? That made me laugh. Out loud.
Mike Stankavich says
Yep, it’s all too easy to fritter away time in the email/twitter/RSS OCD loop when you’re avoiding important work. It’s a seductive trap, no doubt about it.
That being said, when I do process email, I prefer to disposition every message and clean it out. But that doesn’t mean that I take action on every message. If I can’t or don’t want to process it right away, I either star (short term deferral) or tag and add an associated task to GTD, then archive so that I’m not commingling new messages with messages that I’m deferring action on until I’m ready to work on them. In other words, I separate followup from initial processing.
But Hamper Zero, now that’s compelling. I’m going to have a discussion with my wife about that. I’m sure that the joy of the empty hamper far outweighs the wasted energy of washing fractional loads of laundry 😉
.-= Mike Stankavich´s last blog ..Home Networking Versus Voluntary Simplicity =-.
Good post and great discussion, people! I have just two points that I’d like to add below.
The driving force behind getting your inbox(es) to zero is to reduce the mental stress that builds up when the brain is trying to juggle a lot of incomplete “stuff” that you are not clear about what to do with. Your inbox will contain a multitude of different information, of varying importance and urgency. When you don’t quite know what’s in there and what that means to you, negative stress might be a result.
As for the “Hamper Zero” metaphor, while funny, I think it breaks because your defined “Next action” for everything in there is well defined, clearly decided and even the same for all garments: “Do laundry”.
If you have an otherwise working system where you work according to a set of general rules, it’s also just fine to break those rules as long as you feel comfortable and can maintain the level of control you want.
Just yesterday, I actually left my inbox at 2 read email (!) because that was the place where I felt I would most quickly get back to them and do the required processing.
I think it’s important to acknowledge the problem Inbox Zero is intended to tackle, before you can think of ways to use it and if it applies to your situation.
The problem with your inbox is that it contains different types of emails. Some that are intended for reference, others require a response, while others might need some offline action (as you pointed out).
Keeping all these emails in your inbox doesn’t indicate what you’ll be doing with them, and how you’ll respond to each email. Therefore, you will experience some mental fuzziness towards them, because you haven’t specifically and explicitly defined what you’ll do with them. This will create what David “GTD Guy” Allen calls “open loops” that can drain you of energy and attention, as well as cause you stress.
Inbox Zero is where you process your inbox so you know exactly what to do about each message, and removing “processed” messages from your inbox (which should only be used to receive incoming messages).
Alternatively, you can choose to simply label your emails, rather than filing or archiving them.
It’s also important to distinguish between processing your inbox and getting stuff done. When you process you don’t have to do. You simply make a note of what you have to do. When you finish processing, you can then choose to take on whichever task you choose to work on.
@Ali: You’re definitely right by drawing the analogy to the hamper sitting in the middle of your office, because, at its worst, that’s what happens with our computers. Instead of them being workstations, they become process-stations. And you know I how I feel about email first thing. 🙂
@Jonathan: Balance is definitely the key, as well as keeping the end in mind. All too often, the end of Inbox Zero becomes focused on getting to zero, instead of getting clarity and perspective, and, as a result, our balance gets thrown off.
@Fabeku: Thanks, Sound Ninja! Since you have Email Triage, you can tell that I’m now going back through and explaining why it works – or at least why I presented the information as I did. And one of the best compliments I can ever receive is that something that I recommend or develop works and makes sense. 🙂
@Mike: I’ll have something soon that addresses mid-phase processing that I think you’ll like. Mid-phase processing seems to provide clarity, and for some people it does, but it also increases cognitive overhead. But I’ll explain this in detail within the next couple of weeks.
@Airwhale: My post is definitely opinionated, but it’s also harnessing a few years of experience with GTD. Since some of what you say here will be in the post I just referenced in my reply to Mike, I should probably point you to my post Why GTD Contexts Are More Work Than They’re Worth. You may be able to see where I’m going with it.
@Haider: I was on an interview yesterday, and the interviewer let me know about her experience interviewing David Allen – I’m well-versed in GTD & Allen’s work, but I’m glad you brought up the context for people who aren’t, which I often forget to do. Anyway, to make a long story short, David files each discrete message that requires work into its own folder; at the time, he had 100 sum-odd folders with messages in them.
That may work for David, but after years of working with people, I can tell you that causes a lot of falling down.
The idea is that having each message filed away in a specific context provides clarity, but I think it may be a bump in a rug problem. To get clarity, you institute a more complex system – but that system comes at a cost. We have the option of going the other way, a simpler system with less discreteness, without the costs of maintaining a more complex system. If you’re curious about this idea, check out the linked post above and Simplicity, Complexity, and Productivity.
Karl Staib - Work Happy Now says
Email is always a balancing act. We all have different tolerance levels. I like how you said, “Email Triage is about getting to a place of calmness, clarity, and perspective about what’s going on in there, so that you can make more grounded choices about what you want to work on…”
I’ve been working on relaxing with where I am instead of where I need to be. I try to clear out my inbox and it’s all I can focus on. Instead I just give myself a limit of 30 minutes and knock out the most important emails first and whatever I don’t get to will hopefully be a part of my next block of email time. That way I still have time for breakthroughs that really help my audience.
Great perspective! Thanks.
.-= Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog ..The Hard, The Fun, and The Beautiful – Puffy Smile Edition =-.
Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome says
I’m a big fan of limiting containers. Using your laundry example, I know it’s time to do laundry when my laundry hamper gets full. It’s large enough to fit two loads of laundry (dark/light more or less) so I don’t need any system other than that to remind me to do the laundry and not let it pile up.
The same with email, except in this case the container is my FireFox window. I answer email more or less twice a day and I make sure I clear it out to about 10 to 15 messages max before I go on.
Of course, things that are related to other things I do during the day I work on during those scheduled moments and not in the email moment (like I need to add a page to my website and the reminder from someone is in my Inbox until I do it – it’s scheduled for later this week).
I think Inbox Zero is an extreme and extremes never work for long. We need to be flexible and at least slightly moderate.
.-= Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome´s last blog ..Turning Off The Autopilot: Six Ways to Bring Creativity to Daily Life =-.
I’ve not seen it called the Loop before, but what a great way of presenting the problem. Farriss suggests only dealing with email once a week but that would be tough for a blogger. I like to approve comments and reply quickly.
Jon Bennett says
I think you’ve missed the point of Inbox Zero – the aim isn’t to actually clear your email, its to come up with a systematic approach to dealing with emails by either deferring, delegating, deleting or responding. The overall goal is to reduce the amount of administration time spent on emailing.
Charlie Gilkey says
That’s perhaps true, Jon, except for in my interactions with Inbox Zeroers, the focus has been on the Zero part, and, in their cases, they spend more of their time, energy, and attention and maintaining a clear Inbox rather than seeing administration in the context of their total workflow. Which was the point of this particular post.
Either way, the goal of Inbox Zero and what I’m advocating is the same; it’s the focus and how we get there that might be different. Thanks for probing deeper!