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.

Six Ways To Kill Email

delete-button

Every week more and more organisations are waking up to the tyranny of email, and the part it is playing in the impending death of the office. We spend hours each week , up to four years of our lives, shifting low value (or no value) information from one place in our organisation to another.

Despite this, email apologists will tell you it doesn’t really need to be tamed . There really isn’t a problem: email , for all its faults, is the best thing we have right now.

I don’t believe that for a second.

ATOS chief Thierry Breton , who has banned internal email, estimated that barely 10% of the 200 messages his employees received on an average day were useful. ATOS calculated that managers spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.

Nick Atkin of Halton Housing has announced that internal email will end from this February. He’s said it’s part of a fundamental rethink of how the organisation works, stating “We are taking back control from some of the systems and cultures we have all allowed to develop during the 20 years email has been part of our working lives.”

Email is undeniably wasteful but my problem with it runs deeper.

Email represents anti-social business. It locks down knowledge in silos. It reinforces hierarchy and disconnected thinking. It promotes an insidious system of cc’ing and , even worse , bcc’ing as a way of denying accountability. 

Despite that I do use email – it still has uses, but needs replacing as the default way we choose to do work.

Is it possible to seriously tame email without turning it off completely?

Yes. I’ve managed to reduce the time I spend on email by about 75% by adopting six rules.

The results speak for themselves – when I took nearly 3 weeks off work last September I returned to only 20 emails.

So , in the spirit of open knowledge sharing, here’s my six tips for a saner inbox:

1: Don’t send any 

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 – which is a pretty stupid thing to do. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. There are loads of better tools for keeping people informed of what you’re working on (Note: they probably aren’t interested anyway.)

2: Use WhatsApp for chats

Since the formation of Bromford Lab , we’ve turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It eliminates team spam about cakes and whose birthday it is. And it’s loads more fun too.

3: Create a “Yesterbox”

I’m shamelessly stole this tip from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

The idea: Only deal with yesterday’s emails today. 

The rule: If it can wait 48 hours without causing harm, then you are not allowed to respond to any emails that come in today, even if it’s a simple one-word reply. You need to psychologically train yourself to not worry about emails that are coming in….

You can read an outline of the concept at Yesterbox.com

It’s worked well for me as you have a much better sense of which to prioritise – as well as ruthlessly deleting any that aren’t worthy of attention. Which leads us to…

4: Delete any 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: Restrict mail to just four sentences.

If you do get an email from me you’ll see this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 19.44.59

By cutting down the waffle and getting to the point you save time for yourself and the recipient. The link takes you to this site which explains why verbose mails are toxic. If you want to be more radical you can take it down to three lines, or if you’re really hardcore, two.

6: 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.

I’ve seen radically different results from using these six tips, I hope you found them useful.

Please share any of yours in the comments section – if we get enough I’ll turn it into a slide deck.