The Fruitless Quest For Inbox Zero: Eight Tips To Protect Your Time

You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like – but eventually you’ll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren’t really about technology.

They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas – Oliver Burkeman

At the back-end of 2018, I did an experiment, I exported nearly two years worth of email and meeting data into an analytics tool.

The results were unsurprising to me , but still alarming.

Time spent in meetings , especially meetings arranged by others, was increasing exponentially.  The amount of email was increasing too.

Four years earlier I wrote a post called Six Ways To Kill Email , which set out a discipline for drastic email reduction.

This regime worked for a long time, my inbox never contained more than half a dozen items. So what failed and why?

We don’t have a technology problem, we have a boundary problem

We’ve never had more productivity tools than we’ve had today, and yet we’ve rarely felt less productive.

Part of the problem is that our new tools have given people unparalleled powers to intruding into one anothers time.

  • Want a meeting? Spot some free time in their calendar and grab it.
  • Need them at the weekend? Message them from your phone.
  • Can’t get hold of them? DM them via their preferred social network

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson write in their book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work companies are failing to protect their most precious resource – their employees time and attention.

It’s now perfectly acceptable to have a culture of back to back meetings, and even double or triple booked meetings.

As they write “the shared calendar is one of the most destructive inventions of modern times. People’s calendars are not only completely transparent, they are optimized to be filled in by anyone who simply feels like it”.

It was this realisation , that most things in my calendar had been put there by other people, that led me to create some new rules at the beginning of the year.

It was a silent new years resolution to myself to do something to address the overload. As a third of the year has gone – this is how I’ve gotten on.


1: Ignore the quest for Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero (the idea that every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”) was quite the thing a few years ago but in my experience it doesn’t work – as it actually focuses on email as the cause of the problem rather than the symptom.

Even when you do successfully reach Inbox Zero, it doesn’t reliably bring calm if you’re still being invited to lots of meetings and assaulted by instant messaging.

2: Give yourself permission to walk out of meetings

Last year Elon Musk sent a memo to his staff advising them to ‘just walk out of bad meetings’.  Funnily enough it was a rule we had at Bromford many years ago instigated by then CEO Mick Kent.

Walking out of meetings, or not turning up to ones that you’ve previously accepted may seem like bad manners. However if we are serious about valuing peoples time we have to develop new codes that allow people to maximise their productivity and creativity rather than just be polite and wasteful.

3: Don’t send any emails

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. Email in 2019 is still effective, but it’s best used sparingly.

4: Divert long chat threads to Chat Apps 

At the formation of Bromford Lab , we turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. Along with Trello and Google Docs, it’s the tool that’s survived five years of uninterrupted use. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It doesn’t beg you to respond.

4: Delete emails that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions. Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

6: Use Pomodoro for manageable periods of focus

It might sound easy to work on one task for 25 minutes with no interruptions, but it actually isn’t. Pomodoro is a cyclical system where you work in short sprints , which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that boost your motivation. Use a Pomodoro app on your phone and put it into flight mode to kill other distractions. It’s the best way I’ve found of powering through the work you need to do, but don’t always want to. There’s a more extreme 50 minute  version of it called Focusmate, where your concentration is remotely observed by a total stranger. Try it if you dare.

7: Try Trello for transparent work sharing and delegation across teams

Screenshot 2019-05-03 at 07.53.22

We are big Trello fans at Bromford Lab with our work shared openly for all. We also keep a private board as well to prioritize work across the team. Making it visible this way means we can call for help when we are blocked or delegate work when people have capacity. It shifts the focus completely away from your inbox.

8: Set visible boundaries

The way you work has to be the way that works for you, not for everyone else. That might mean setting an email out of office communicating you only check in once a day. It might turning your phone off and saying you are concentrating on deep work. It might be wearing headphones in the office to signal you don’t want interruptions.

Whatever it is – set your own boundaries and make them known.


 

I haven’t cracked this 100%. However as I finish writing this post at 8:15am I have nine unanswered emails and just 90 minutes of meetings today. Something is beginning to work.

Most productivity hacks fail, no doubt many of the above would fail for you personally.

The trick is finding the ones that work for you and balance your needs with those of your colleagues. My advice however would be to not sit around waiting for this, it’s a truly rare employer than places restrictions on meetings, emails and phone calls.

You need to develop your own rules and boundaries that protect your time and creativity, never mind your sanity.

  1. Hi Paul. One of the few things that appear in my in box nowadays are your blogs. So I always read them. I’ve said before one of the best ways to maintain a clear inbox is to retire. I now receive very few emails and am rarely invited to anything. I can recommend it. 😊

    Reply

    1. Tom you’ve smashed it. That has to be number nine on my tips. And thanks for not unsubscribing!

      Reply

  2. Some great tips here and interestingly in the era of paper (yes, I said paper), I used the ‘three tick’ approach. Everyday when I prioritised what I would do that day, I would tick each piece of paper and if it ended up having three ticks on it, I used to bin it!! Scary, but it worked too.

    Reply

    1. Well you know what they say… productive people take better notes. I do think physically writing things down allows you to commit your attention to your next action

      Thanks for commenting Tracey

      Reply

      1. Tracey Johnson May 6, 2019 at 10:10 am

        I’m so glad you said that about paper 😊 I love paper and a new notebook. But is it just me or does anyone else feel like they’re from the dark ages of they dare to get out a pen and pad rather then an electronic device? 🤔 I’m partial to a post it note too 🤦‍♀️

        Reply

        1. Ignore them! They’re wrong. Interestingly we’ve just launched a new strategy and just issued paper notebooks to all 1800 colleagues. It’s not without controversy for the reasons you state.

          Reply

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