The One Thing You Must Never Do With Your Inbox

The One Thing You Must Never Do With Your InboxAre you constantly struggling to stay ahead of an overflowing inbox? There are plenty of apps, tools, and other technology to help you get control of your inbox. But most of them only help you process your e-mail faster. That can help, but it’s not enough. We get so much e-mail that it’s never fast enough. Trying to get your inbox empty is an impossible task.

Unless you do one thing …

What’s the real problem here?

Too many people use their inbox as their To Do list. But that’s just dumb.

Your inbox represents other people’s priorities, not yours. If you treat your inbox as your To Do list, you’re letting other people run your life.

Don’t believe me? Just take a quick look at what’s sitting in there now. You might find …

  • A request from your boss or an important client
  • A request from a colleague or freelancer to review a task you gave them
  • An invitation from a friend to dinner in two weeks’ time
  • A request to complete a two-minute customer satisfaction survey
  • A few e-mails newsletters
  • A notification from Facebook that somebody liked your photo
  • A message that somebody has changed their address and wants you to update your address book

Now think about this: If you were consciously making a list of the top 3, 5 or even 10 things you want to achieve today, would any of these items appear on it?

Maybe the first two would, because they are important and relatively urgent. But the others wouldn’t. Nor would most of the hundreds (or thousands!) of other e-mail sitting in your inbox.

So why do you leave it there? All it does is distract and depress you every time you check for new mail.

The good news is: It’s easy to fix this problem.

Here’s the The One Thing You Must Never Do With Your Inbox: Never, never, never leave e-mail sitting there for more than five seconds after you open it.

Yup, five seconds!!!

In practice, that means there are really only two things you can do when you open a message:

  1. Delete it.
  2. OR Move it somewhere else for later processing.

This is the path to Inbox Zero.

The term “Inbox Zero” was coined by productivity expert Merlin Mann. The goal is simple: an empty inbox every time you check it.

That might seem impossible, but it’s not.

The solution is to check e-mail as often as you like, but only process it when you’re ready. In other words, separate these two activities. Otherwise you’ll be filling your day with other people’s priorities.

Here’s how this works:

  1. Check your inbox for new mail.
  2. For every message, either delete it or file it for action. I have four action folders “Today”, “This Week”, “Next Week” and “Later”, where I put incoming mail based on its urgency. Even very urgent e-mail gets put in the “Today” folder.
  3. While you’re doing this, do not be tempted to act on any message, regardless of whether it’s trivial, urgent, or anywhere in between. Simply shunt it into a folder and move on to the next message.
  4. At the end of this process, your inbox will be empty! Even though you haven’t processed any of the messages, it’s amazing how an empty inbox can make decision making easier.
  5. Now, if you received any urgent e-mail, act on it. But you’ll usually find that nothing needs immediate action, so go back to your other work. You’ve satisfied your psychological need to check e-mail, so you can return to the unprocessed e-mail later.

At first glance, this might seem like you’re just shuffling e-mail around. But don’t underestimate just how good it is to see an almost empty inbox every time you open it, and an empty inbox soon after.

Getting to Inbox Zero now

When you achieve Inbox Zero, it’s easy to keep it that way. But what if you already have an overflowing inbox now? Simple – just create a new folder (e.g. “Old E-mails From May 2015”) and move everything from your inbox now into that folder. When you have time, gradually go through that folder and process the e-mails as required.

Be brave and do this! You’re no worse off because you haven’t lost any mail. But you do have an empty inbox, and you can keep it that way – forever.

Look at the benefits of this process …

This is a simple process, but it’s very, very powerful – for example:

  • You can check e-mail frequently. It only takes a few seconds each time, and there’s no risk of it taking you off track. You don’t need to “discipline” yourself to only check twice a day, or carve out chunks of time each day for prcoessing e-mail, or whatever.
  • Forget the two-minute rule. This process contradicts David Allen’s Getting Things Done advice to act immediately on an e-mail that takes less than two minutes. I’ve never liked that advice because I might knock off a whole bunch of two-minute actions without ever making progress on important projects.
  • You focus on YOUR priorities. Emptying your inbox this way – without acting on any of the e-mail – keeps you firmly focussed on your priorities.

Remember: Never, never, never leave e-mail sitting there for more than five seconds after you open it.

Do yourself a favour and try it now!

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