Self Improvement - An Algorithm for getting to "empty"

Whether we like it or not, at NAG and many other organizations, we live in an "e-mail" culture meaning that e-mails are how we communicate, receive and retain information. For many of us, e-mails also document both what we have done and what we still have to do. If you are like most in this culture, your e-mail inbox is the hub of your work life. I'm going to suggest an inbox "experiment" for you but first, a little fun.

One of my favorite ways to get to know someone is to ask how they use their inbox. It's almost a litmus test for personalities. So, what does yours say about you? Is yours:

The Black Hole: E-mail gets sucked in but never leaves, a filing cabinet with one gigantic drawer and two folders labelled "In" and "Sent". Periodically, either due to an inspired desire to get organized or "intervention" from a systems administrator, the inbox gets purged and the cycle begins anew.

The Formula One Pit: E-mail comes racing in and the pit crew (you) frantically tries to dash off a response that nominally addresses or acknowledges the item. It could be a "holding" response (thinking about it, promise to get back to you later) or a delegating response (passing it on or telling the writer to see some one else). The key feature, like the pit crew, is to get it out as fast as possible. This is a difficult personality to maintain, especially when you aren't connected to the network or need to sleep;-)

The Swiss Army Knife: This inbox, like its multi-tool namesake, can do most everything. It carries information for later reference, tasks that need to be done, dates/times for meetings, etc. It does it all. Stuff gets thrown out or filed elsewhere occasionally when it has been taken care of but it remains the ultimate "nerve center" of work life.

There are others but I think you get the idea. So, you ask, what's the experiment you want me to try? In essence, I want you to get your inbox emptied at least once each week but I want you to do it in a way that is functionally different than the Formula One Pit. Here's the algorithm:

Set aside an hour at a quieter time each week (early morning, late afternoon, whatever works)

Go through you inbox one message at a time and ask yourself "Is there an action required?"
  1. If the answer is "No", then either delete as trash, file it elsewhere or reference or file it in your "great things I'd like to do someday but don't know when" folder. Be ruthless.
  2. If the answer is "Yes" then answer the question "what's the action required?" and one of the following four things happens to it
    • If you can take the needed action in 2 minutes, do it now and either delete the e-mail or file it in another folder for later reference.
    • If somebody else needs to do what's needed, forward it and delegate
    • If you need to act on it on a specific day or day and time (e.g., a meeting) put it on your calendar
    • If you need to act on it but it's not time or day specific, put it on your task list. By the way, if it's really a project (i.e., has multiple steps) put it on your task list as a project and just note the very next step.
  3. You're done! Everything that was in your inbox is now in the trash, filed for later reference, delegated to someone else, on your calendar or on your task list.
How do you feel? Can you focus better now on what you need to do without that feeling of dread you get when you look at an inbox with 50 messages (or 150, 250)? Let me know what you think.

Next time: Thinking outside the Inbox and an unattributed quote to puzzle over: "If you worry about everything, then you don't have to worry about anything."


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