Inbox Zero email management and productivity training

Inbox Zero

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Email has become the source of almost all incoming and outgoing information in business life and is taking up vast amounts of our time. Hence, knowing the Inbox Zero concept of Merlin Mann from 2006 is more actual than ever. According to a recent studies email usage has reached the following peaks:

  • Average of 122 business emails sent and received per user per day (avalanche of information)
  • The average person spends 28% of the workweek reading and responding to email (13 hours per week)
  • This equates to 650 hours a year spent on completely reactive work
  • Average inbox contains only 38% relevant emails

What is Inbox Zero?

Inbox Zero is a simple, yet effective system to deal with email overload. The method was invented by the American productivity expert Merlin Mann. For all who have not the time to watch the video, we have created a more or less complete transcript of Merlin Mann`s original tech talk at Google in 2007. You find the text below the video.

Inbox Zero talk of Merlin Mann transcript summary

Following we are going to present what the American productivity expert Merlin Mann calls inbox zero. It is based on a series of articles he wrote on his blog Inbox zero has a lot to do with the struggles most people have in dealing with high volumes of email.

“In 1993 I got my first email, email was astonishing at this time. Do you remember – it was mind blowing, the sense of connecting with people. You write someone a letter and it gets there immediately. Every little email we wrote in those days was like a special little letter. It was like getting a little hug from somebody and we were returning it with a little hug. But somewhere along the way email became somehow the one source of almost all incoming and outgoing information. And it became a lot less fun and more like an avalanche of information each morning. In 1993 we did not need a system for doing email. Today, one of the most important soft skills to have is to know how to deal with a high volume of emails.”

Build a system

The only way to going to do that is to put a system in place that is simple and repeatable. It has to be a very simple system with a relatively complete framework, that regardless of whom the message is from and what kind of content type it is, you know how to deal with everything that comes into your world. A system reduces the number of possible options what something could be and turns it into a relatively small number of verbs for what you can actually do with any email.

Build walls

One of the most important things an email system can do is to build walls, where they do not`t yet exist. A lot of people for practical purpose literally live in their inbox. They leave their email open all day long and they are auto-checking throughout the day. Little “Dings” come up about every minute. An email becomes the nexus for everything they do with work. They use their email as a to-do-list manager, as a calender and everything else. For most people email has become a world of pain. You guys are knowledge workers, which is a fancy name of saying that you add value to information. If you are knowledge worker, the two most precious resources you got are your time and attention. They are both finite and they are both irreplaceable. There is no way you can ever add a few hours at the end of a day and you actually can´t do 17 things at one time. Multitasking tends to be something of a myth. Where you decide to put your time and attention says a lot about who you are. It says a lot about you as a human being. You have some idea in your head about what is a high priority. All the stuff that really matters. So I ask you, what is really important to you and your company? And most answer my family and my friends, but then I go and look in your email box, your newsfeeds and your web browser – what would the last two weeks about your electronic life say about how it maps to the stuff you claim is really important? Maybe it maps really well and in that case you should leave it that way. But if you are like me and you struggle with that, you need to build these walls to honor where your time and attention go. There is probably no better way to have your time burgled than by not having a healthy relationship with your email and having a sense of where stuff belongs. As much as your time and attention are finite the demands on your time and attention are infinite. You are ultimately the one who has got to make decisions about how your time and attention map to the actions in your life.

A concept for time and attention

Consider a box as a symbol of time and attention. You can add whatever you want to that box. But every task you put into that box is like a block. Big tasks are big blocks and little tasks are little blocks. But no matter how you cut them up, there is only a limited space for blocks to get in the box. The fact of the matter is, that it is all about opportunity cost. Every time you put a crap block into your box it means that a really cool block doesn´t get in there. As much we believe we are depend on bosses and teams, we are ultimately the traffic cop for this kind of stuff. One core idea behind inbox zero is that you want to make sure that you don´t have to take out stupid blocks our of the box, instead you better make sure that they don´t get in there in the first place. That requires a proactive approach to manage the actions in your life.  And that is really what it is all about. If you managing your actions that your time and goals are always mapping to the stuff that you claim are important and this could also mean that you spend less time doing email.

Inbox zero principles

Merlin Mann actually takes a lot of things from David Allen´s book getting things done. In particular a lot of things about processing. If you are familiar with gtd, it has a lot do with this. David Allen has a phrase in getting things done that Merlin Mann likes a lot. David Allen calls gtd advance common sense and that is exactly what a lot of the inbox zero method is. The stuff Merlin Mann talks about could not be more obvious. The problem is that we do not always do the obvious things. So the goal is to put things in a framework, that is easy to live by can keep things on the rails. The idea behind inbox zero is based on four believes. First, we commit ourselves that email is nothing more than a medium. It is a tube that get´s things from end to another. There is no need to be in the email. That is not where the action is. The second belief is that there is a one place for anything. Third, the single case that will probably change your life forever is the concept of process to zero. Process to zero every time you are checking your email. Never check your email without processing. You will never get out of an overflowing inbox, if you allow things to stack up in the first place. Finally, the fourth point is all about converting emails into actions. Even if that action means deleting the email. It is about deciding in the moment what you are going to do about it and then moving on.


What is processing?

Processing is probably the most important piece of it in terms of how it will effect you from day to day. The problem is, that most people think that checking email is enough. Checking brings with it a certain kind of responsibility. But checking is less than responding. Responding is one possible outcome of checking, but it is not the only one. Some of you mind think, that you have to respond to any email, but that is not true. You have to process your emails. At the end it comes down to this – processing means that you look at every single email in your inbox and decide what it means to you by answering the question “so what?” or “what actions do I have to take as a result of this email?” Look at yourself as a miner. You are an information and action miner looking for nuggets of gold in your email and it is your job to decide what this gold is. That is what email processing is all about. Focus on putting out what the desired results of your job are all about. Get the information and action out of your emails as quickly as possible and then throw them away. Get them out of your inbox. The inbox zero method offers you a limited number of options of what you can do with any email.

Five potential things that can happen to any email

Five and only five verbs are your options for any email based on the inbox zero system of Merlin Mann. Why is that a good thing? Is there any email in your inbox that you have read, but haven´t done anything about it? Maybe a “couple”… that might be, because you haven´t thought what the possible verbs are. Having those verbs can be really comforting.

  1. Delete (or archive): It is unbelievable how much you can delete. Merlin Mann includes archiving in deleting. Archiving is a single folder for any that you may like to find later. It is not to have 24 folders. If you need it later, you will find it via search. There is no point deciding each time in which folder something should go.
  2. Delegate: Is there somebody else who can deal with it?
  3. Respond: If you can respond to an email with in 2 minutes. Just answer in a one, two or three line response in one or two minutes. Keep moving and keep the ball in motion
  4. Defer: Set a time, when you are going to deal with them later.
  5. Do: Do it now

If you figure out what your verbs for dealing with email are, you will never have emails stacking up in your inbox again. There is only a limited number of outcomes for any email and it us up to you to decide what the outcome is.