For many of us, our email inbox is like that closed door in a good horror movie. We dread what we’ll find if we open it, but our curiosity and fear of not knowing compel us to do it anyway. We know we must conquer email overload to stay productive, but it often feels like the inbox is controlling us.
I’ll be adding additional posts on the Tools and Processes to achieve Inbox Zero, but this first post tackles the far more important issue of the Inbox Zero Mindset.
Introducing the Inbox Zero Mindset
To achieve the Inbox Zero Mindset, we first need to define Inbox Zero. Despite popular myths, when productivity expert Merlin Mann coined that phrase, the “Zero” in Inbox Zero was meant as the amount of unwanted time focused on your inbox, not the number of messages inside. This is a critical point because it gets to the goal behind the Inbox Zero Mindset. It’s the same goal behind all my productivity advice. My goal is to help you live your “Optimized Life” – the best life you can live based on your own goals, aptitudes and context. It means spending more of your time in what Stephen Covey calls Quandrant 2 activities – activities that aren’t about fighting fires, but focused on achieving your long-term goals. The Inbox Zero Mindset is designed to keep you in email just long enough to accomplish your goals and no longer.
Inbox Zero Articles of Faith
The Inbox Zero Mindset requires acceptance of four of what Mann calls Articles of Faith:
- Not all email is created equal. They may show up in your inbox looking the same, but by now, I’m hoping you recognize that each is different. Objectively, they have different senders, cc’s, subjects, lengths and other features. These features will aid us later, but first you must accept that likely 20% or less of incoming mail deserves 80% or more of your focus.
- Your time is precious. You’re reading this, so I know you get it. Do you live by it? Hopefully you know by now that there will always be more inputs,like email overload, than what you can meaningfully use toward your Optimized Life. Remember, we’re trying to Optimize your life, so the goal is not perfection.
- Less is often more. Everyone else is overwhelmed too. They’ll appreciate your brevity, particularly in business. As a recovering attorney, I know this can be difficult, but accept that it is almost always the right decision. Open Secret: People don’t read your super-long emails anyway.
- Acknowledge your emotions. Our inboxes can bring about feelings of guilt, stress, inadequacy or fear. Call them out to yourself, then let it go and MOVE ON. An Inbox Zero Mindset is about taking action to attain an Optimized Life, not about being paralyzed by totally understandable emotions.
Ruthless Personal Honesty – the 5th Faith
Putting the 4 articles of faith into practice requires we be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. Face it, to be successful, we must reconcile powerful motivations in our way:
- Procrastination – delaying the inevitable
- Daydreaming – mental free time
- Stress, anxiety and fear associated with potential failure
- People pleasing
- Desires to appear smart, witty, competent
With all this going on, it’s no wonder we get stuck or lost when trying to apply the articles of faith. Believe me. I’ve been there. To truly adopt an Inbox Zero Mindset you need to be ruthlessly honest in your answers to the following 10 questions:
- Why do I care about my inbox? about this particular email?
- How much time does it realistically take to process my inbox over a week?
- Am I really ever going to respond to this email?
- Does this email deserve a detailed response or would a shorter response suffice?
- Is my response as much about my ego as providing useful information?
- Do I need to be the one to respond to this email?
- Am I devoting time to this particular email because I’m behaving like all emails are of equal value?
- Do I get or send essentially the same email over and over?
- How much of my email time is Quandrant II time?
- Am I doing this just to appear “busy”?
For most, inboxes are about deciding what gets done more than the doing. Are you deciding to do the right things?
There’s a reason I didn’t include tools and processes in this first post. It’s better if you start by adjusting your mindset and getting a baseline of where you are today. For the next week or two be ruthlessly honest in your answers to the questions above. Jot down how many times per day and how long you spend processing email. If you can, track how many you send, delete, archive. If you use Gmail, you can sign up for Gmail Meter which provides many of these statistics for you. To be successful, we’re going to set some goals and you need a baseline.
In our next installment we’ll set some goals. then introduce some great tools and the processes that make them powerful.