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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