This Is How To Inject Focus Into Your Work Day
Get To Inbox Zero In 6 Simple Steps
Are you getting work done or just processing messages?
For many of us, work seems to be just that — processing messages. And it doesn’t stop when we leave the office. We’re always connected to it. Always tethered to what might be happening with our supplier on the other side of the world. Constantly within reach of a boss who remembers she forgot to send that critical note before she left the office, so she does it before going to bed.
This is no way to work. No way to live. There is a better way.
I get between 120–150 emails per day. I am able to manage that volume by dedicating only 90 minutes every day to it — in three 30-minute chunks of time. The rest of my day is spent doing the things I do best, that add the most value to my customers, clients, and stakeholders. The things that leave me with a sense of fulfillment.
You can get there, too. I’ve implemented this system myself, and have coached several colleagues and clients through successfully adopting this program.
Time to get started.
Step 1 — Get a Task Management System
You’re going to need a system to track things you’re doing. You may be using your email inbox as your task management system — that’s the first issue you’ll need to fix. So, choose a system.
If you’re already using something to track tasks successfully, keep using it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you aren’t already using something that works, here are some ideas:
-Mobile app. A couple of the most highly-rated are Swipes and Wunderlist.
-Planning notebook. I use Intelligent Change’s Productivity Planner (pictured), and have also heard good things about Panda Planners.
-Paper & pencil.
The specific system you choose isn’t all that important. It’s just important that you have a system. You need to get your tasks out of your inbox, either by dealing with them immediately, or capturing them somewhere else to deal with at another time. More on this later. For now, just know that the task management system you choose will be that somewhere else.
Step 2 — Make Your Intentions Known
If your inbox is currently out of control, it’s likely that your email is constantly “running in the background.” You may be working on a spreadsheet or other program on your computer, but you have your email system running just a click away. You may even hear a bell (Pavlov’s dogs, anyone?) or see an icon in the corner of your screen when you receive a new email message. Even after hours, the temptations of your inbox are right there in your pocket. You’re going to change all of that.
Here’s what to do next: Notify people. You’ve likely trained people to expect immediate responses from you via email. You’ll need to un-train them. Start by sending them a message. Something like:
“I’m in the process of implementing a new system of managing my email. Part of this means that I will only be checking my inbox three times per day. You may have gotten used to being able to get an immediate response from me by email, but that will no longer be the case. I will still be reading your emails, and responding as necessary and in a timely manner, but my response may be more delayed than what you’re used to. If you truly need an immediate response, please call me or send a text message.”
Step 3 — Hide Your Inbox
In this step, you’re going to remove the temptation to check your email “all the time.” Instead of being constantly tethered to your email, you’re going to make checking email more difficult. As difficult as walking to the mailbox at the end of a quarter-mile driveway in a blinding snowstorm just to see if you have mail. We’ll use the tried and true “out of sight, out of mind” principle for this.
Make your email inbox more difficult to access:
- On your PC, remove the shortcut icon from your desktop, or bury it in a folder. Better yet — a subfolder within a subfolder. You want it to be difficult to access. The more clicks it takes you to open your email, the better.
- On your phone, take the same approach. Move your email program off of your home screen, either by putting it on a secondary / tertiary screen or burying it in a folder. Also, turn off notifications that alert you that you’ve received a new message. In your phone’s settings, you can also turn off automated updating, so that your email program will only download new unread messages when you manually update it. This isn’t necessary, but is an additional safeguard against your email controlling you. If you move your email off of your home screen and turn off notifications, this should be enough for most people.
Step 4 — Schedule Your Email Time
Going forward, to truly control your email instead of letting it control you, you’re only going to interact with your email during times that you’ve scheduled to do so.
This is a critical step in getting to inbox zero. Schedule your email time.
It’s possible to start tomorrow, if you can find 3 1-hour chunks of time that you can set aside for email. Ideally, these would be early in the morning, near mid-day, and late afternoon.
If you can block those times on your calendar starting tomorrow, and then every day after that, you can start tomorrow. Most people’s calendars are so full that they can’t do this. If this applies to you, look into the future on your calendar and determine when you can start scheduling 3 1-hour chunks of time, every day, for email. It’s likely that you’ll only need to look a week or two into the future to be able to find this time.
Schedule it. Block the time on your calendar, and then protect that time like it’s sacred.
Step 5 — Day 1 of Email Three Times Per Day
You’re ready for Step 5 on the first day you have your email blocks of time scheduled.
Congratulations!! You’re here. You’ve made tremendous progress so far, putting yourself on track to get to inbox zero. So far, you’ve:
- Identified a task management system.
- Notified important people that you won’t be immediately available by email any longer.
- Hid/buried your email program so that it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”
- Scheduled 3 1-hour blocks of time over the course of the day to work with your email.
Now it’s time to start working through your email inbox. You’re going to follow 2 rules each day:
- Process all of today’s email today. It will be tempting to start on your backlog — the dozens, hundreds, thousands (?) of emails that you’ve allowed to pile up and clutter your inbox. But that’s not where you’re going to start. Start by processing only the email that you’ve received so far today.
- Apply the 2-minute rule. Some emails can be actioned quickly and easily — they can be deleted or responded to immediately. If the action / response you need to take will take less than 2 minutes, do it immediately. If the action will take longer than 2 minutes, capture the task in the task management system you identified in step 1 of this plan. You’ll complete this task later. For more details on the 2-minute rule, see David Allen’s excellent “Getting Things Done.”
Continue working through your email, starting with new mail and applying the 2-minute rule, until your scheduled hour is up. If you make it through all new messages before the hour is up, start processing older email.
When the hour is up, close your email program and get on with your other work. Follow this process for each of the 3 1-hour blocks that you have scheduled.
If you’re not able to process all of the day’s new email with those 3 1-hour blocks, add more time later in the day. It’s important to end today at “inbox zero” for the day. Any remaining time can be spent working on your email backlog.
Step 6 — Day 2 and Beyond of Email Three Times Per Day
You’ve done it! You completed Day 1 without adding to your email backlog — congratulations!
As you can tell, there’s no magic to this. By following a simple set of rules, you’ve shown that you can control your email inbox and make significant progress to inbox zero.
Now it’s simply a matter of repeating the process, following those simple rules:
- Only interact with your email during the time blocks that you have scheduled for it. Ideally, 1-hour blocks early in the morning, around mid-day, and late afternoon. Eventually, as you get more efficient, you’ll be able to reduce these 1-hour blocks to 30 minutes.
- Don’t finish the day unless all of that day’s messages have been processed. This will get you to inbox zero on a daily basis, at least for that day. Any additional time you have in your scheduled blocks can be spent processing your backlog.
- Apply the 2-minute rule. Your inbox SHOULD NOT serve as a task list. If an email requires less than 2 minutes to action, take that action immediately. Otherwise, capture the task in your task management system and mark the email as read or move it to a subfolder. Once you’ve captured the task, get the message out of your inbox.
Habits take time to establish, so stick with this. It took you years to establish the habit of letting your email control you, and it’ll take some time to establish your new habits. It’ll all be worth it — you’ll notice an absolute change in your state of mind and productivity, as you learn to control your email inbox instead of letting it control you.