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.