Inbox Zero

This week, I want to talk about the concept behind Inbox Zero, a system created by Merlin Mann years ago and one I’ve followed since 2009 when I was introduced to it.  It’s important to note, though, that Inbox Zero can become something like the CrossFit of tech … everyone brags about it and uses it to measure up against one another.  If that’s your approach with it, you’ve missed the intent.  (Side note: I CrossFit.)

If you check for new email every five minutes, you are checking your email 24,000 times per year.  On average, when someone interrupts their thought stream or work to deal with minutiae, it takes 25 minutes to get back to the task at hand.  Inbox Zero is a rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times.  Inbox Zero was developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann. According to Mann, the zero is not a reference to the number of messages in an inbox; it is “the amount of time an employee’s brain is in his inbox.” Mann’s point is that time and attention are finite and when an inbox is confused with a “to do” list, productivity suffers.  Mann, in his video, identifies five possible actions to take for each message: deletedelegaterespond, defer and do.

  • Delete: If it isn’t related to you, delete or archive the email immediately.
  • Delegate:  If someone else can do it, let them.
  • Respond:  If it truly is an issue to which you need to weigh in RIGHT NOW, get it done.
  • Defer:  Create a task or appointment with yourself (and others as needed) for later in the week to take the action required.
  • Do:  Enough said.

Some of his tips for effective email management include:

  • Don’t leave the email client open.
  • Process email periodically throughout the day, perhaps at the top of each hour.
  • First delete or archive as many new messages as possible.
  • Then forward what can be best answered by someone else.
  • Immediately respond to any new messages that can be answered in two minutes or less.
  • Move new messages that require more than two minutes to answer — and messages that can be answered later — to a separate “requires response” folder.
  • Set aside time each day to respond to email in the “requires response” folder or chip away at mail in this folder throughout the day.

One of the bits of “prior art” (as Mann puts it) beneath Inbox Zero is ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) by David Allen. Like any system, it’s not applicable to everyone. Despite the avalanche of articles every day suggesting there’s a magic way to make your work easy, it doesn’t exist.  Merlin has a bunch of supporting articles explaining it over at his website, and there are other articles out there too that are good at explaining it.  I’ve found it is one of the best ways to keep myself focused on the task at hand versus being distracted throughout the day by all the “fires” I create for myself.

As a bonus, there’s a great video from Leadercast this week that quite succinctly summarizes how to have and what effective meetings look like.  The transcript:

Meetings are a huge part of our work life. In fact, I believe, properly done, meetings can be the social operating system of your entire organization, but too often we just set a meeting, show up, hope for the best, and then wonder why we spend our lives in meetings that don’t matter.

So here are a few rules to master the art of the meeting. First of all, always have an agenda, whether it is an agenda of a meeting you are leading or an agenda of a meeting that you as a leader are attending. That is a great thing to add to your culture.

Meetings must have structure. The agenda must make it very clear why we are here, the back-drop information we need to understand, and then the discussion points about plans of action regarding those discussion points. In other words, you need to have a premise, pros [SP] and a series of prescriptions that come of the any meeting.

You also should not use meetings to exchange information that could be exchanged previously to the meeting. So send a little bit of homework, so when you guys sit together, 75% of your discussion time is about making plans and clearing up the picture.

Meetings should only be 45 minutes long, unless they involve seriously complicated issues. And by no means should you plan to have a meeting for more than 90 minutes.

These two-hour meeting blocks are just silly and lead to too much consensus building and waste people’s time leading organizations from Google to General Electric have begun to put stopwatches, like the TED Talk countdown watches in meeting rooms and they found that in many situations the hour-long meeting can be just as effective at 20 minutes. But whatever you do, just manage the time and make sure people are conscientious about it, so that conceivably your employees can spend at least half of their time in business working on their work.

Here is the final idea. At the end of a meeting, someone, hopefully you, the leader, needs to write down all of the things that were promised and all the action steps that were identified, record those, and send a follow-up email out to all attendees, making incredibly clear what is expected of them and when.

This is the first way that you can approach your meeting life with not only a sense of structure and brevity, but with a sense of purpose. That when we get together and have a meeting, we are getting things done around here.

There was also a great article this week from Inc. about how to live an exceptional life – I went and bought the book referenced in the article, I’ll let you all know how it is.

And for those that got this far, the next time you are stuck in your morning commute, just think back to this video of a traffic jam in China, where they have 50 lane highways.

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