What comes after Inbox Zero

It seems like certain tools in our lives have a tendency to morph into lifestyles, obsessions, or even whip-wielding captors (complete with Stockholm Syndrome) over time. I can think of few better-suited examples of this than E-Mail… Most of us have an almost Pavlovian reaction to incoming e-mail when we’re at work, and thanks to smartphones, Blackberries and webmail portals, we can make our e-mail obsession immediate and ubiquitous in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

Sometime in 2007, my thoroughly-digitized friend Pauley introduced me to “Inbox Zero” as I played with his shiny new iPhone. Curious why his e-mail inbox was conspicuously empty, he explained that Inbox Zero is a practice he follows that was dreamed up by Merlin Mann, an Internet guru who rolls with the who’s-who of the web’s cutting edge. The philosophy – and it’s definitely a philosophy – is that our time is too precious and scarce to waste letting e-mail (which, let’s remember, is a tool) dictate how we work. After letting the concept stew at “interesting” status for a while, I started using Inbox Zero at my day job in 2008. Minutes after I processed through my inbox for the first time, colleagues started asking me about my curious new practice. After a day or two, I stopped dreading opening Lotus Notes (well, except for the fact that it was Lotus Notes). And after a week, I noticed that the time I was spending on e-mail had dramatically dropped. Like, by a factor of ten.

Since then, I’ve tried my best to keep using Inbox Zero. I’ve been better at it some times than others, but in using it, I’ve noticed a hole of-sorts in the practice of Inbox Zero. The philosophy advises that we must change the way we view e-mail in order to constrain our interaction with it to manageable chunks of time. The practice, on the other hand, suggests that we should fit that interaction into “passes” or “dashes”, which we use to methodically process through our messages and address them. Therein, at least in my experience, lies the problem.

I think one of the reasons people are easily trapped into pouring time into e-mail is that it’s often the “glue” that binds their other activities. When you arrive at the office, you check your e-mail and find something actionable. You go off (either physically or mentally) and do whatever it is the e-mail demands, then return to respond or file it away. The turnaround time might be seconds, minutes or hours, but in every case you find yourself back in your inbox. When we process to zero as Merlin advises, we partially short-circuit this process by filing actionable messages into a spot that’s more worthy of our time and attention. But the problem remains: some e-mails just take a long time to address.

For me – and that’s a huge caveat – what’s lacking is a way to separate the e-mails from the actions they prompt. In my world, an e-mail can just as easily trigger a 30-second response as it can trigger a two-hour excursion into analyzing a customer’s design. In both cases, the e-mail is actionable and needs answering. But in one case, I can handle it right within my e-mail dash, while in the other I’m performing a significant (and often billable) task in order to generate a response. My answer? I think this is where having a solid means of managing tasks and projects comes in. For our professional projects, my partners and I use Basecamp to manage tasks – so when I encounter an e-mail that results in a slug of work to do, I try to distill the message into the actions it’s prompting, then capture them in Basecamp. I can then file the e-mail away for a response once the work’s done, keep my inbox at zero, and respect my existing means of selecting what to do when.

That practice needs to feed back into Inbox Zero’s philosophy: e-mail shouldn’t short-circuit your existing ways of managing your tasks and getting things done. Just because it makes a nice dinging sound doesn’t mean it gets elevated to the highest priority. Yes, Merlin does touch on this, but it’s really in the context of “the before” with respect to using Inbox Zero. E-mail in proper perspective is a must – but re-training yourself to funnel e-mail’s “actionables” into your regular workstream is just as important. Of course, this assumes you have a regular workstream apart from e-mail firefighting and task management by-heroics…and if you don’t, I can’t think of a better way to start making space for one than with Inbox Zero.

  3 comments for “What comes after Inbox Zero

  1. MKH
    January 30, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Hey Dave, not sure if you ever looked over my shoulder at GM to how I adapted this. I too learned of Mailbox Zero some time ago and I found the same issues with it. It works well for quick turn around questions, particularly asynchronous instant messenger type stuff- so I suppose this is really good for manager/leader/communicator types. But for those tasks that require invested time for a response, from a few days to a few weeks, something was really lacking. To address this I did two things: in the spirit of Inbox Zero the ones I could take care of immediately (response required or not) I did and moved it to a new folder marked “Taken care of”, the remaining ones usually numbered around a dozen and stayed in the inbox until completed. If it was going to take some time or the boss was looking for it I would respond immediately to let them know activity was ongoing and to make sure the timeline I’ve proposed fits with them.

    For the tasks themselves I started an excel sheet that tracks the basics of a task (task, due date, completion date, later I added which PMP task it was part of, and still later how many hours it took as I needed to document that for project accounting- it is very helpful for that using excel data sorting to group projects). The email would then be broken down into specific tasks. At some point I added some simple conditional formatting to get colors to focus me on the ones I should be focusing on from a time standpoint. Every morning this spreadsheet is opened and it stays open all day with it’s colored bars across the screen.

    This took a couple months to get tuned right for me, but now that I’ve been doing it for at least 5 years it’s just an everyday habit.

  2. fluffy
    January 30, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    We could also choose to respond to the inbox as most people have learned to check their postal boxes – once per day. I find at work that an idea or request is passed along prematurely; that is, before the person sending the email has thoroughly developed or evaluated the idea themselves. The bain of my inbox are these ‘chatty’ type discussions that are better served by a whiteboard brainstorming session. I have proven to myself [although I have not yet changed my habits] that by checking my email less frequently, I have fewer ‘wheel spinning’ days – caused by the messages where the sender has requested something only to retract it later on. Unfortunately, one problem is the sender not using the proper strategies for idea development, nor choosing the proper avenues to communicate those ideas. The real change may come when the people who habitually want instant feedback learn that taking some time to think before sending an email is a good idea.

    We could also learn how to better expect responses by email. At what specific moment did it move from a convenience to a requirement that we respond to general mail in a short period of time? A feedback loop can cause an output to oscillate just like a conversation can escalate to an argument. I’m not suggesting that some time-sensitive items don’t need to be addressed right away, but important messages deserve, in my mind, the type of immediate response that only a phone call or face time can provide. I have observed several times when someone has sent a time-sensitive email to me after normal business hours and has expected a response before the start of business the next day. The funny thing is, after that person is done chewing on [me and] the concept of checking mail periodically, we have a conversation about the content of the email and determined we should be heading a completely different direction.

    I think overall that society has mistakenly linked efficiency with speed. Yes, we can be more efficient if less time is spent to deliver a message, but more time if the content of the message is crap anyway.

  3. dave
    January 30, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Good thoughts all! @Matt, I didn’t realize that you were another IBZ practitioner with me at GM – and I agree with your sentiment that a quick response to assure the sender “I’m working on it” in the case of lengthy tasks is a nice (and often important) touch.

    Maybe the reason Merlin didn’t emphasize hooking IBZ into other, larger-scale means of managing our time is because there are so many ways to do so. The point of IBZ is really to get control of the inbox, but that presumes there’s some system of time management to fill the vacuum left by liberating ones-self from email serfdom. To that point, Fluffy’s sentiment that effective communication and effective decision-making goes way beyond the mere tools we use for each is an extremely important one. Sometimes less truly is more!

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