In the ongoing debate about managing email, one concept has gained a lot of attention – finding ways to process all the emails in your inbox every day until it was empty. This modern office nirvana, called ‘inbox zero’ and invented by productivity evangelist Merlin Mann, promised peace of mind.
At last, no more requests! The satisfaction of an absolutely spotless workspace.
The concept is loosely based on the amazingly popular productivity theory, Getting Things Done. Start at the top of the inbox and process each email with one of the following actions; do, defer, delegate, respond or delete.
In his original post, Mann claimed he could reduce an inbox filled with 500 emails to zero in 20 minutes through this method.
The emphasis is on speed – get through the pile as quickly as possible, push those that need further thought or actions into a Pending folder, until there’s nothing left in your inbox.
But the concept has attracted its fair share of critics. Inbox zero is like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; no matter how hard you chase it is always beyond your grasp.
Instead, we should learn to live with the fact that there will always be things to do – and that includes emails to answer.
An entrepreneur who set out to create an app that would help workers achieve inbox zero eventually decided it was a pointless exercise.
Shawn Carolan, CEO of Handle, said:
“So long as opportunities exist or work is in progress, your backlog of to-dos will always be greater than zero, no matter how you track them, define them, or how quickly you complete them. Your subconscious is always keenly aware of it. Even with delegation, you can pass a hot potato to someone else to move it forward, but it always comes back, often hotter the second time around.”
Carolan has three pieces of advice for the productivity focussed.
- Work out what you must do. “We’ve found through both empirical and anecdotal research that identifying MUSTs and organizing around them is the ultimate secret to most successes.”
- Make sure you have a complete list of all your tasks. “If there’s paper in folders, voicemails, texts, meeting notes, scribbles on stickies, etc. that represent a MUST, you MUST go find them.”
- Plan your day around the things you must do – and don’t overcommit. “The key seems to lie in these steps: scripting just today where visibility is best, leaving standing whitespace in your calendar most days, and having a complete accompanying list that gets consistent review and prioritisation.”
A clear inbox may be unrealistic but control over your email should not be.