When I was a kid, there was a rule at dinnertime that I had to eat all of my vegetables. I used to look at veggies as an obstacle to getting to the good stuff. Of course, the rule itself didn’t dictate that I ate my vegetables first, but where’s the pleasure in polishing off a delicious pile of buttered noodles and beef stroganoff, only to be faced with healthy greens at the end. I know, a bleak way of looking at vegetables, but I was like five years old and my happy ending did not lie in a pile of creamed spinach. So I ate my veggies first, fast and usually without chewing.
My email inbox is sometimes like the vegetables of my life. However, instead of digging in and getting it over with, sometimes I will endlessly push the food around my plate until everything gets cold. I don’t get to the fun stuff because I can’t bring myself to “eat my veggies” — process my inbox.
Prisoner to my Inbox
Knowing that I’m behind in my email can prevent me from going outside on my lunch break or leaving work on time at night. I wouldn’t feel justified leaving my desk with all those communications sitting there unanswered. If I go off to do the fun stuff when I know there’s something important that still needs to be taken care of, then I can’t fully enjoy myself and relax.
Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to delve into my inbox and handle it right away. If there are emails in there that require a more complicated response or a decision, I might feel paralyzed about what to do. I feel a little uneasy when I don’t immediately know what to course to take, which can result in procrastinating by distraction to take the edge off. So I take more time to think in the corners of my brain, but I’m not all Action Jackson about those tough emails just yet.
Email Begets Email, Asparagus Begets Asparagus
That doesn’t mean that I’m avoiding my inbox. On the contrary, I can be in there all day every day, but never getting my inbox down to zero. To keep going with a vegetable analogy, I can liken the experience to The Asparagus Story.
When my parents were courting and my dad first met my mom’s parents, Grammy made asparagus the side dish with dinner. Being the gracious guest he was, my dad ate all the spears on his plate even though he absolutely despises asparagus. Grammy shoed away Uncle Buster’s request for seconds, and in the spirit of being a gracious host, she shoveled the whole bowl of asparagus onto my dad’s plate declaring that he “LOVES asparagus!”
You might think you’re getting your asparagus (email) over with, but as a result you wind up with even more asparagus (email.)
I’ll explain. There was a time when people asked me what I did for a living and it was tempting to answer, “I email,” because that’s what my working life felt like: an endless loop of a full inbox, fielding emails and trying to curtail the flood that came in every second of every day. The faster I replied, the more emails were lobbed back to me in response. I was queen of the fast return, volleying emails back and forth from multiple senders at the speed of lightening. Then when I would take a break from emailing and come back to my inbox, I would feel overwhelmed; it would again be chock full of emails requiring replies.
My “Aha” Moment
Then I discovered a secret. If I managed my inbox more effectively, I could control the flow of emails to a manageable rate. I selected a couple key times during the day to reply to my emails. I stopped working out of my inbox. And now I’m more productive than ever.
Follow these steps to process your email, eliminate inbox clutter and maintain a sane pace. The worst part of having a cluttered inbox is wondering what’s lurking in there. Mining through all that junk will give you a feeling of freedom when you’re through and then you can go out and play.
Step One: Clear out your Inbox. We’re starting with a mess, and so the first time is the hardest. Let’s get it down to zero, and then we can talk about maintaining the placid state of your email account. Start at the top with the most recent email and plow through one by one. Make quick decisions on each. Email comes in the following four delicious flavors and can be handled depending on what action is required.
- Delete: Make it a point to be liberal with your delete button. Stop hoarding email. It’s mental clutter. When in doubt, throw it out. Delete, delete, delete. Hopefully you’ll be able to delete about half of the emails you encounter, if not more.
- File: If you really and truly need the information contained in the email and you’ll reference it later, then file it. Set up folders as you go, but use as few categories as possible, including “Other” or Miscellaneous” where you can drop most of your email without an obvious home. Don’t think too hard; you’re eating vegetables here so just do it fast and get it over with. There are more fun, useful and productive things to do with your time than obsess over your email storage system.
- DO IT – the Two Minute Rule: This is for a reply that can be typed up in two minutes and two sentences or less. Or if there’s an action required that’s a quick action, do it and then move on. Then either delete or file the email. Remember, you are in the act of processing your inbox, not working out of it.
- TO DO: This scenario is for when you can’t just hit reply and know what needs to be said or you can’t do the task involved quickly. It requires a little bit of thought or time to process. Then the email becomes a TO DO list item. What’s that? You don’t have a task list? Well you do now. Trust me, a task list is easier to tackle and much less intimidating to look at than a jumble of hundreds of emails.
So that you can clear out that inbox, set up a folder called TO DO and move any TO DO email in there. Work from your task list (see next paragraph) then delete each TO DO email as the task is handled. This isn’t a working folder, so don’t peek in there more often than necessary. Maybe review it once a week and clear out actions that have been completed off your task list
Step Three: The Task List. Since the task list is born of emails that require a little more time or thought, these emails will be handled by asking yourself, “What’s the next step?” Do you need more information? Do you have to work out a more detailed answer? Decide on the next action required, and then you’ve got your TO DO that goes with that email. Add the resulting task to your task list.
To manage your task list, go with a system that makes you happy that day. Some days when I’m going low tech I use a piece of paper. For items that are verbose and are better handled electronically, I use a combination of a Word document for notes, my calendar for items that are date constrained, and an electronic task list I can use to check off items. A to-do list is a to-do list, so handle it in a manner appropriate to your situation, whether it’s a grocery list or project management software. Most email programs come with a task list. Gmail has a left-hand menu item called “Tasks” while in Outlook you can actually drag the email onto your task list or calendar to create a new task or appointment.
Step Four: Maintenance. This is where we learn to stay on top of it … but not TOO on top of it. I recommend that you process your inbox to zero twice per day. Set a timer for 15 minutes and plow through it. You want to strike that balance of furthering work projects (you don’t want to be a bottleneck) without giving up the time required to strike items off your task list. If your task list gets neglected because you forget the plot and start working out of your inbox, you’re back where you started. The tough emails still aren’t getting answered, and then you’re fulfilling that bottleneck role whether you mean to or not.
I work in a fast paced and virtual environment where email doubles as “conversation” and so that scenario requires me to at least check in and scan email frequently. So I still do that. But I make it a goal that twice a day, I close other distractions and I process that inbox completely down to zilch and make sure there are no open loops.
Step Five: Do whatever your little heart desires! It may come as a surprise, but you might actually find that you have free time on your hands. Once you have no question as to what your workload is and your tasks are rightly scheduled, you can better achieve some balance in your day. If you want to get up and get outside on your lunch break, then go nuts and take pleasure in it.