Sunday, April 6, 2008

Fundamentals and Good Habits to Keep Your Email Inbox Empty

In the past I have been inspired by many email sorting processes such as the ZenToDone system from my favourite blog of all time 'ZenHabits'. ZTD is in turn based off the famous GTD system developed by David Allen. I have also interviewed a few people such as the author of 'TheTechTreeHouse'. All these people claim to have wonderful 100% clean email inboxes all perfectly managed, the likes of which I have to sheepishly admit I find difficult to imitate.

Last week I made notes of some bad email habits. To examine the situation more carefully, this week I asked myself: What is an email by its very nature? Each email is a piece of information. As such, each email has some content and also may or may not require an action from us. The informational content inside the email can be as varied and as complex as a written language can portray. Certainly this might mean an infinite number of meanings, and it would be futile to develop an approach that could cater for all these possibilities. Usually as we internalise the content we also become aware of some actions we may need to carry out as a result.

As can be seen from my previous post, the biggest trap one can fall into is getting lost in the content of the email. To empty our inbox, we must not lose sight of our goal: which is to sort the emails, not to necessarily understand them at present. That can come later. We only need to understand enough of each to adequately sort them.

I recommend setting aside a piece of time on a regular basis to sort all the emails. How often you do this depends on the frequency and amount of emails you receive. You should aim for at least an hour, at least once a week. As it requires some concentration and block time you may want to do this in a quieter time of day. I found the first work hour on a Monday morning works for me.

If your inbox is the type to be literally overflowing from emails a year old and you have not already done so, I suggest that you first move those older than a specified time period (for example a month) all into the archive folder without looking at them. These should be old enough that you can be pretty sure are too old to be relevant. However they will still be there in your archive if you ever need them. If you attempt to sort every single one of these old emails, chances are that you will never finish and you will be setting yourself up for failure.

With that out the way, at least once a week, process the entire list of emails from top to bottom, without exception. Imagine that it is not yourself who will carry out the actions of the emails, you are only organising them for that person. If a particular email seems too hard to sort, then it may help you to imagine you have a rather unsympathetic friend watching your progress over your shoulder. If you say 'I can't sort this one right now', he will reply 'Why not?'. As you try to desperately come up with an excuse, it may help you to actively categorise the email.

This diagram shows how we will process the email:

Lets look at our thinking pattern for each email:

Easy Emails
If this email requires no action from you, and know you will never need to refer to this again, delete it!
This is the most fun part, and I want you to be really strict about it! Let spam jokes, and irrelevant cc'ed emails begone! Have your finger ready on that delete button and show those emails who is boss. If you notice yourself arguing to keep it, I want you to ask yourself a second question: If I never see this email ever again in my life, will I be the worse off for it? If the answer is no, blast it.

If the email survived we now have some more questions.

Action Review

When is the action required, and how long will it take?

Action required will take very quick
As a guideline 'very quick' is less than a few minutes. If it will take you less time to action it then it will to write up in your todo list, it should be done right away. A simple email reply, falls in this category.

Action needed today
Write the item up in you @today list. This is the list of things you have decided to tackle today.

Action needed later
Add the item to your @todo list.

Information Review

With actions out the way, lets review whether we will need to refer to the content again:

Never need to refer to this again
You can safely delete it.

May need to refer to this again
Firstly, if possible get the information out of the email. If you can take the message and add it as a description to an item in your todo lists then all the better. This means you can safely delete the email, and never need to worry about it again.

I generally also keep notes/files for supporting information on projects I am working on. If the email is has a slightly longer content, I will add the message there and again, delete the email. (A better description on my todo lists is a topic for a another time).

As a last resort, if you want to keep the email itself, archive it. You may want to flag it if an action is required.

Moving to the archive folder, is an obvious choice when you know you only need to refer to it in the long term. However an email being needed in the short term is the most contentious category, where most people will choose to leave the email in the inbox. By looking at my own behaviour I realised that the reason I like to keep things in my inbox, is because this is the view that I refer to most often instead of looking at the actual archived emails themselves. In Google Mail this is archive view is called 'All Mail'. It really doesn't make sense that one spends most of ones time looking at uncategorized emails (the inbox), and little time looking at the emails that were precious enough to archive in the first place. So once processed I try to keep my mail looking at 'All Mail' and only referring to the inbox when I see something new has arrived. It's best to think of the Inbox as the entry hall of a house, where you can greet new guests if the doorbell rings but then spend most of the time in the reception.

Archive folder

I have noticed that some people use one big archive folder while others like to have individual folders where they drag and drop each email. I say that whichever system you use is perfectly fine and completely up to you. I think the single archive folder is a concept really encouraged by Google Mail and it does require a good searching ability - which is why you don't often find people using Outlook using this approach. I have used both methods, and tend to prefer the single archive concept as the multiple folder approach is more time consuming.

Finally, as a receiver of an overwhelming number of emails per day I'm proud to say that after using this approach I have finally managed to reduce my work inbox to zero! This has to be an achievement.

I'd be interested to hear your comments.