Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Achieving “inbox zero”

Achieving “inbox zero”
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Last night I tweeted that I had achieved and maintained “inbox zero” nirvana. I’m sure there are countless posts on the topic, but thought I’d briefly share how I made sense of the communication barrage that I was once drowning in.

A couple of years ago, we were a small but growing studio of six, and I felt like my days were comprised of lots of action but little movement. I was directing three designers, serving as the primary point of contact for our clients, and also the person tasked with business development. (A task I admit to generally pushing aside in lieu of something more interesting.) Along the way I was also writing blog articles, mentoring students, teaching, working on startup things, and on occasion making an appearance at home to see my wife and son.

“Blah, blah, blah… We’re all busy Eric; what’s your point?”

I know… I carry on. Let me get to it. One day I decided “enough” and I simply started to look at how I could deal with all of this. My suspicion was that the problem wasn’t so much with the number of things to do, but rather in my method of managing tasks and correspondence. I had fastidiously used Outlook to manage this sort of thing, but without success. Instead of ever completing the several hundred tasks that kept popping-up, I seemed to just find myself rescheduling them for other times. Somehow I had to categorize the signals into manageable groups.

Compound tasks

My first step was to reorganize all of my tasks into what I call “compound tasks”. Each individual task in Outlook has the capacity for notes. As such, I started to collect all of my similar tasks into a single one. These groupings included: Personal tasks, Sales, Publicity, and so on. Within each I sort tasks chronologically or by subcategory when necessary.

I tend to concentrate on one of these groups each day. As such, “Sales” is assigned for tomorrow and it will lead me to follow-up with a few potential clients, send out some promotional packages, call some past clients, and so on. I’ll get as many of the “sub-tasks” out of the way as possible and then reassign this grouping either for a week down the road, or for a specific date when something in the list needs to be addressed.

I generally have around 10 groupings or “compound tasks” underway, and I do have to run through and prune these, as they tend to get messy after a little while. Having silos to organize all of my tasks into has helped me minimize reminder noises, and regain the sensation of some control over all of the things to do.

Act immediately

One of the biggest things I fight is the notion of scanning an email, thinking about it, partially reading it, thinking some more, and finally responding after hours of procrastinating. Multiply that by a couple of hundred messages a day and it’s easy to see how one would feel like there’s little room for anything else. As such, I deal with email as quickly as possible.

I delete any spam that manages to sneak through from the notification window, without even opening Outlook. Additionally, I’ve unsubscribed from all of newsletters and mailings, outside of those that I really find useful or compelling. (I find myself rather consumed by FontFont emails.)

Those remaining emails are dealt with by one of a few key actions. First of all, I archive anything important that doesn’t need a response but should be saved. (We have job folders and miscellaneous internal folders to hold all of these.) For those emails that require some kind of further work or action, I assign a task for this and archive/delete the message. For any messages that need a reply, I try to respond immediately and then archive/delete the original message upon doing so.

I find it works well to have a system like this, as it helps me to have a few simple ways to deal with any message that comes in. Plus, once it’s out of the inbox, I can free up the nagging sensation of messages awaiting my attention.

Accepting my limitations

Today smashLAB is smaller than we were a couple of years ago. As such, these habits are even more necessary. With fewer people here we are spread rather thin, and meanwhile have a number of other new projects underway. (If I didn’t maintain “inbox zero” I’d probably drink more than I already do.)

I’m starting to accept that there’s always more work than I can complete. As such, there are some things I simply need to skip or find faster ways of dealing with, particularly given all of the new feeds and messaging systems that we have to contend with.

I’ve created a set of templated responses that help me send quick replies to certain kinds of correspondence. Job applications and emails from PR companies are good examples of this. I understand how frustrating it can be to send a resume to a studio and not get any word back. That being said, my responses to such emails are generally pretty similar anyway, so why not standardize them?

As of late, I’ve been toying with more concise emails as well. These help greatly, although I often worry that I appear curt or rude by doing so. As such, I’m perhaps overusing emoticon smiles in order to imply that I’m just moving quickly, and not meaning to be a jerk.

Like many other designers, I’m often asked to speak at schools, review portfolios, mentor students, write articles, and so on. I have to stress that I really do appreciate these invitations (well, most of them anyway), but don’t have to time to take all of them on. The reality is that I have very few billable hours in a day. (Plus, things like this blog demand a fair bit of time and still aren’t covering their own costs.)

Last week I received a rather snarky response from an instructor who seemed frustrated by my inability to meet with his class on short notice. Somehow he seemed to have reasoned that I “owed” him this. I archived the email, left it as it was, and smiled at the fact that although I wouldn’t be helping him out, I could now spend this time with my kids instead.

Go “inbox zero” and you won’t go back.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Chris Ritke says:

    I absolutely agree. I've managed to keep my inbox to zero for several months now and must say that I couldn't be happier with the results. But I don't understand how it works unless you have something like Gmail's search. Because archiving an email only works well if you can trust that you'll be able to find it again - I think search is the best solution - I'm very happy that I gave up folders a long time ago.

    I really like your idea of task gr0ups. I'm actually working on a thingy-style contact/task manager (mainly because I'm very much in need of one myself!) and have been grappling with that problem for a while now. I wonder if tagging may be a way of solving this.

  2. Sean Stiller says:

    As always, great post!

    The 'template e-mail' idea you came up with is particularly interesting, I hadn't considered this before. We use templates for most other aspects of client/business management (proposals, etc.), so it seems like a logical extension. If you're able to, perhaps elaborate a little on all the uses you have for these templates, I'd like to begin using a similar system myself.

  3. Ultimately I write a response to one person, and then delete the name and reuse the same message in future correspondence.

    For example, we don't have any intentions of hiring at smashLAB, so I don't want people to waste their time applying. As such, I have a general email explaining that we have no need for staff, but that I'm happy to pass their name along if I hear of someone who's looking for someone with their skill set.

    I also have emails that go out to PR people who send me crap. In these I ask for them to remove me from their lists, and perhaps read the "Idiots" post here at ideasonideas.

    Again, this is just a way to let people know that I've received their message and what's going on. I hate it when people don't respond to emails I send. As such I think it's only fair that I practice what I preach.

  4. David Ronnie says:

    For those of you that have heard of GTD, there's a couple of solid apps that you might be interested in. One is an actual GTD firefox add-on that turns your G-Mail inbox into a task manager.

    For those of you that prefer to keep a task list that doesn't demand you logging online to manage, I'd recommend iGTD. There's a professional version that you can pay for, but I find the free version works just fine for my needs.

  5. Hey Karj. Yep inbox Zero is utopia. Thanks for the advice. Spot on.

    Here's a little overview of a folder structure I've used for a few years that helps achieve peace of mind.

    > Personal (emails from wife mainly but also things I deem private to me)
    > Friends (Usually tom foolery emails from my mates)
    > Projects (sub folder for every project, these are active projects)
    > Projects Archive (completed projects)
    > Reference (things I want to keep, refer to. important emails, passwords etc)
    > Trashable (Emails that I wont be needing, temp emails. I prune this regularly, but usually leave at least 1 month of emails there, just in case ;)

    Trashable is my most used folder, because to be honest a lot of email these days is a waste. I have a short cut key setup so I can prune these out fast.

    With all this in mind, the best advice I ever took was to not open your inbox every 5 mins or open it just because you get an email. Also turn off the annoying alert for everytime a new email comes in.

    Instead, try checking emails every hr or so. And dedicate 10mins to filtering sorting and replying.

    I work my best when I focus, and having outlook bugging me as I'm thinking about a project is the worst.

  6. Susan Seeley Roe (ssr11) says:

    Great post! I forwarded it on to my husband because he was freaking out this week from email overload. I wasn't quite sure what to say to him because I have the same problem at times. Thanks!

  7. Alon says:

    Nice article. I have been practicing zero inbox for a while now with a varying degree of success.

    I use "Things" on the Mac and iPhone to keep things sorted and as a main to-do list per David Alan GTD book and system.

    I read a tip somewhere about adding a signature to your email that says something like "I check my email at 10am, 2pm and 4pm. If this is an urgent request please call, etc.", with your choice of time intervals, of course. I haven't tried this yet but it might cut off the pressure to check/respond to emails all the time.



  8. Val Kildea says:

    I like the idea of concentrating on one 'sector' of tasks per day. David Seah seems to apply the whole principle to his working life with his Printable CEO series ( – currently still filed under Good Intentions on my list of things to do!

    Thanks for another interesting post Eric.

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