A note before we get started:
In the below blog post, I talk about applying the 2-minute Rule to maintain your email inbox, but if email's not really your thing, note that the 2 minute rule has SO MANY USES beyond the inbox! Housework. Errands. Paperwork. Pesky "home" stuff like grocery lists and booking doctor's appointments and meal planning.
So when I talk about email below, now that I'm not just talking about email. Insert whatever area of your life is feeling crazy out of control.
The other day I read a blog post about an entrepreneur who hates email.
Hates it. Fiery passion kind of hate.
I do not share this hate.
In fact, I think email's a rather marvelous invention.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I prefer electronic communication over talking on the phone. I find it super uncomfortable to speak to someone without looking at someone.
But that's not the only problem; I find FaceTime equally icky, if not more so.
See, there's no room for comfortable silences on the phone/FaceTime, and as a hard-core introvert who often needs LOTS of time to think before speaking, the very mention of "call me" or "FaceTime" will bring out every excuse in my playbook. ("Oh, I'd love to chat, but I need to lint-roll my throw pillows. All day.")
I prefer email.
Email respects other people's time. It gives them all the information they need to hit RESPOND or DELETE based on their priorities. Not yours.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post . . .
In the anti-email blog post I referenced above, the blogger mentioned the idea of Inbox Zero being laughable. As though the concept were a unicorn.
Now, for those of you who don't geek out on systems and business processes like I do, Inbox Zero is exactly what it sounds like:
An empty (or nearly empty) inbox.
It's the idea of never having more than a couple of things in your inbox at any one time.
Now, there are generally two opinions on Inbox Zero:
(1) It's a noxious concept that makes us all slaves to our devices; it's the worst part of the hamster wheel that is modern business/communication.
(2) It's an achievable, sanity-saving endeavor.
If you haven't already guessed, I subscribe to #2, but lately I've been getting the impression that I'm in the minority.
Now, this could be because I get fewer emails than other people. It could be because I have more time than other people.
Both are probably true.
But it could also be because I have a pretty kick-ass email system.
Actually, it's not MY system. Full credit goes to David Allen's Getting Things Done process. I'm not a strict GTD-er, but I have embraced his approach as it applies to my email inbox.
It goes a little something like this:
I open my inbox. I look at an email. Any email. Last, first, whatever. Just start somewhere.
I apply three levels of assessment.
The first: can I delete this email?
Get really comfortable with deleting. Or at least archiving. All those coupons from Bed, Bath Beyond, all those "new books from GoodReads!" or those "Labor Day Sales that won't last!"
Chances are you leave them in your inbox, thinking, "I'll get to this later."
You probably won't get to it later. Give yourself a break. Saving that extra $20 on something YOU DIDNT EVEN KNOW YOU NEEDED is probably not worth the mental exhaustion of that little email notification reading 299.
Or if you're not ready to delete, at least archive it. That way if tomorrow you're like, "I need new sheets. Oh wait, didn't I just see a coupon ....?" That's what your email's search function is for. BUT GET IT OUT OF YOUR INBOX.
Same goes for "work" email. If it's something that's just an FYI, delete it, or archive it so that you can read it later. If it doesn't require action from you, it doesn't belong in your box.
The second level of assessment: is this urgent?
This should be the MINORITY of emails. Also, note that this should be things that you deem urgent--not necessarily what the person writing the email deems as urgent.
If it is truly urgent, take care of it, but again, these urgent emails REALLY shouldn't be happening that often. If they are, you have bigger issues than email.
The third leve of assessment: apply the 2-minute rule to whatever's left
The two-minute rule is simple: If you can respond/or take care of whatever to-do item the email requires (i.e., buying new sheets with that Bed, Bath Beyond coupon ) in 2-minutes or less, DO IT. DO IT RIGHT now.
Do not put it off for later. Do not tell yourself you'll get right on that after you skim the rest of your emails or check Facebook.
Do it NOW. Take the 2 minutes. Respond. Buy the sheets. Then archive or delete the email. BE DONE WITH IT.
You'd be surprised how many of your email "tasks" can be completed in 2 minutes, but the key is addressing them IMMEDIATELY, not "later."
So now that you've addressed all the 2-minutes and under stuff, you're left with the rest:
The ones that take longer than 2-minutes to address.
For me, these fall into 3 categories:
(1) Edits from my editor (i.e., here's your manuscript back. Fix it).
(2) Promo Requests from my publicist or PA (i.e., You have a book coming out. get people to buy it. Or, You need to go mail this thing).
(3) Emails from friends that are of the long, rambling, "catch up" variety.
For the first and second, I write down the associated task on my to-do list, and then archive the email. If there are relevant attachments, I'll flag/star the email so it's easy to find later, but I get it out of my inbox.
One of the keys to getting to Inbox Zero is understanding when the email itself is the actual to-do item, and when the email is merely the method of communicating a to-do item.
In other words,
Don't let your inbox double as your to-do list.
I repeat, your inbox is not your to-do list.
I know it's tempting to leave an email there as a cue to take care of something, but I know from experience that this is exactly how inboxes become gnarly, triple-digit (or more!) beasts.
Get another system to keep track of things. A planner. Google calendar. A piece of paper. Evernote. A fancy "to do list" app. Whatever. But don't let it be your inbox.
The very process of transferring a task from inbox to new list is important in itself. If you let the email languish in your box, your brain will only register "I have 78 emails to take care of." And then your brain will break.
But if you put it on the list with the REST of your life stuff (grocery shopping, etc), you'll very quickly figure out what needs to happen first, what needs to happen later, and what actually doesn't need to happen at all.
Okay, back to the inbox ... what's left. HARDLY ANYTHING. Emails from friends. The good stuff. For this, you'll have to use your gut on when to respond. For me, it's often times between writing sessions. It's my reward.
Other times I"ll take an hour on Sunday and just do a leisurely email session where I write to my college roommate, my author friend, that aspiring writer who wants advice. But because these are the ONLY emails left in my inbox, there's no sense of resentment, there's no sense of "Oh gawd, one more thing to do."
See, when you get rid of the crap ... the coupons, the sales, the bills, the work-related tasks, you're left with the good stuff:
Messages from people.