A colleague of mine told me the tale recently of being up at 2am slogging through an overfull inbox. You can imagine the words used to describe this time! But the real meat of the story wasn’t the pain of working through this list, but rather the weight that lifted from his shoulders the minute he had reduced the number of messages so that he was able to see the complete list on screen.
This insight got me thinking about the various ways of managing an inbox, and the value of the GTD and Inbox Zero philosophies. Specifically I wanted to know:
- does the perfect email/task management system allow us to get more done, or
- does it only give the user some peace of mind (ie total illusion), or
- to look at it another way does it allow the user to get some peace of mind, which over time allows them to get more done?
So I went out and trialled a ‘getting things done” variant. My take? I’m starting to see it less as a “you WILL be more productive right now” to more of a “you will calm down, and in the increasing calm spells you’ll achieve more”.
So what specifically did I do to bring about these periods of calmness? Well one of the first things I did was to look to prioritise / manage my incoming messages. I receive hundreds of these a day. All my incoming message types connected to Unified Inbox, so all my email accounts, Facebook and Twitter streams are coming into the same place.
To start the day, I start working through the list of My Messages (all of the above and all those that other people in my team thought I needed to work on from the team accounts).
Delete – Seems easy but these do take a bit of work. Is it a legitimate message that I need to see, process and discard, or do I need to unsubscribe or in some other way stop these messages coming in and taking up processing power (my brain’s, not the computers). Example message: an alert for upcoming seminars in my area. Nothing relevant in this one, but I want to continue being notified.
Do – something I can do right now in under two minutes (my personal time limit – others will have longer or shorter limits). Example message: check a suggested meeting time and respond.
Label and Defer – these are things I will do later. Either I have to think about them (what I would call reflective thought) or they will take more than two minutes to do. I label messages so that similar types of workflow can be found together (eg: receipt filing gets labelled Receipts – it’s easier to do them as a batch than immediately as I have to open other tools and check categories etc). And for the most important messages that I don’t want to lose down the rabbit hole – Starred. Example message: a request to create a specification for a variation in product functionality.
File – almost like Delete but a record should be kept of that communication. (generally this is strictly informational stuff, I should be aware it’s happening but there’s nothing I need to do with it right now).
At the end of this, there should be nothing left in my Inbox. I can with great emphasis say –this feels great.
So of course the big question is, am I actually getting more done, or do I just get to feel good a couple of times a day?
If I’m being honest, to start with there was probably little change. The stuff that used to get stuck in my inbox was still getting stuck in my Defer system.
But an interesting thing happened after doing this for a couple of weeks. In the immediate “great” feeling after clearing, I would think to myself “what difficult thing do I want to do now”. To be poetic about it, there was a feeling of power in my veins and the idea that right at this moment I could do, if not anything, at least many things.
And I started to tackle the difficult Labels folders.
On the first day for about 15 minutes. Hardly enough to warrant talking about.
Then the next day I spent a couple of 15 minute blocks on the Labelled messages. And the next a bit longer again.
We’re not at the end yet, ie a clear inbox and no Deferred work, but personally I feel in a good space – and think this could well be possible.
And all because I spent a couple of times a day feeling great!