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16 Feb

An empty inbox - an unrealistic ideal?

Datum: 2016-02-16 09:47
A laptop with a blank, white screen, on a white desk

Prac­ti­cal­ly every­one I meet receive a sub­stan­tial amount of e‑mails. But when I pose the ques­tion How many e‑mails do you gen­er­al­ly receive in a day?” dur­ing a lec­ture, the answers vary con­sid­er­ably. The answers usu­al­ly range from 20 e‑mails per day to over 100, with a medi­an around 60 e‑mails per day. Still every­one, regard­less of their answer, per­ceives that they are receiv­ing a lot”.

Our lives and sit­u­a­tions all vary, but what mat­ters most is not how many e‑mails we actu­al­ly receive, but how we per­ceive the amount, wouldn’t you agree?

The­o­ry is one thing, and real­i­ty another

When we are dis­cussing e‑mails I usu­al­ly also pro­claim the ben­e­fits of hav­ing an emp­ty inbox from time to time. Hav­ing few­er e‑mails in the inbox offers less stim­uli and infor­ma­tion for the brain to process, which saves ener­gy and we get less tired. Besides, it feels good to emp­ty or clear some­thing out once in a while; to feel that we are up to speed in at least one area of our work or life.

But for those who receive over 100 e‑mails dai­ly (and who have oth­er things to do as well besides for pro­cess­ing e‑mails), I ful­ly under­stand if an emp­ty inbox feels dis­tant and like a utopi­an concept.

Let us have a look at if it would be pos­si­ble to at least have an emp­ty inbox once in a while, even if the incom­ing flow of more mes­sages won’t cease.

How is it done?

The basic prin­ci­ples for obtain­ing an emp­ty inbox are:

  • We throw away the e‑mails we imme­di­ate­ly know we do not need

  • We imme­di­ate­ly respond to the e‑mails which take us less than two min­utes to respond to (or do what­ev­er the e‑mail urges us to do which takes less than two min­utes to complete)

  • We cre­ate to-do-tasks (rather than mark the e‑mail as unread, flag it or mark it with a star) out of the e‑mails which con­tain some­thing we have to do but which takes longer than a few min­utes to complete

  • We add the more exten­sive task (or project) to our overview of larg­er tasks if the e‑mail marks the begin­ning of such a task or project

  • We save the e‑mails we need to keep but in some oth­er loca­tion than the inbox into which new mes­sages keep flow­ing in

If we fol­low these prin­ci­ples con­sis­tent­ly, it can be done, but not otherwise.

You could try doing this

If you have an over­whelm­ing stream of incom­ing e‑mails every day and want to expe­ri­ence hav­ing an emp­ty inbox once in a while, then try this.

  1. Unsub­scribe from all newslet­ters which you do not read any­way and do not actu­al­ly want to receive.

  2. Fil­ter out all the unwant­ed news- and com­mer­cial-mail you receive (due to that your e‑mail address has been added to a list some­where online) auto­mat­i­cal­ly by cre­at­ing a rule that redi­rects e‑mails which con­tain the text Unsub­scribe” (pos­si­bly in com­bi­na­tion with some oth­er key­word just to be on the safe side) to the trash. Do not for­get to cre­ate excep­tions for the news-mail you still wish to receive so that they are not fil­tered out as well.

  3. Cre­ate rules that send as many of dif­fer­ent kinds of e‑mail you know you fre­quent­ly receive but still need to keep, and which you know takes a lot of your time to process man­u­al­ly, into sub­fold­ers. It could be auto-gen­er­at­ed e‑mails from a sys­tem you are work­ing in or cc:-mail con­cern­ing a cer­tain project.

  4. Speak with your col­leagues and agree that you do not have to send short and unnec­es­sary Thank you!”-messages respond­ing to for instance hav­ing received a doc­u­ment. Com­pen­sate by being extra friend­ly when you meet face to face or speak on the phone. Sure it is nice to be polite and appre­cia­tive, but we are receiv­ing too many e‑mails as it is, and could hence do with­out these addi­tion­al messages.

  5. You will need to read and process any oth­er mes­sages one by one, that is, make a judge­ment call for each one and deter­mine what they con­tain and what you need to do with this infor­ma­tion. For this pur­pose you should go through your struc­tur­al tools:
    • Is it easy enough for you to cre­ate a to-do-task from an e‑mail? If not, find out (or ask me) what your dig­i­tal options are of mak­ing this process easier.

    • Is it explic­it­ly clear to you how to add a project onto your overview of more exten­sive tasks, and where you keep this overview?

    • Do you know beyond any doubt where you store e‑mails you do not know when you might need, but which you want or need to save? Could you decrease the num­ber of options, so that you always know what goes where?

  6. Are you still receiv­ing more mail than you have time to process since you have many oth­er things to do as well? If so, it might be a good idea to sort through your tasks and weed out those of less impor­tance so that your work­load comes down to a rea­son­able lev­el. Use your goals as a ven­ture point and for instance use the refine­ment-tool you can find in my book to deter­mine what is what.

Once in a while is much bet­ter than never

If you fol­low these instruc­tions to get a bet­ter grip on your e‑mail inflow, you will find that it becomes eas­i­er for you to emp­ty your inbox com­plete­ly at least once in a while. The ques­tion is just how often you suc­ceed in get­ting there. Per­son­al­ly I do not man­age to emp­ty it every day, but per­haps once every week or so. If you should only suc­ceed in emp­ty­ing it once a month or once every six months, it will still make you feel bet­ter than if you would have to wait until the next time you switch e‑mail address for your inbox to be emp­ty. Believe me, it’s worth it.

What is your way?

How do you min­i­mize your e‑mail inflow? Share your best tip with me!

(Apart from an email inbox, I actu­al­ly believe you would have use for a phys­i­cal inbox too — even in this dig­i­tal day and age!)

By the way, if you want more tips on how to cre­ate good struc­ture at work — here are many ways to get just that.