September 11, 2014

Clearing the Slate to Achieve Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero. How many times have I written about this topic, considered by many to be the holy grail of productivity? Countless. And yet how many times have I actually achieved Inbox Zero? Wellllllll, I’ve gotten there many times on work email (hooray!), but when it comes to personal email… that answer is zero. Oops 🙁

Part of the reason I haven’t yet been able to hit zero in either of my two personal inboxes is that I am not willing to start from scratch… and the pile of emails I already have in each inbox is really overwhelming. (Over 500 per account!) All the experts tell you to clear it all out so that you’re starting with a blank slate, but I’ve been reluctant to just ditch all the old emails like that, and I know if I put them into a subfolder, I’ll never look at them. (Okay, maybe not never, since I am constantly checking my filtered folders, but I won’t have the same motivation to action them if they’re not right in my face.) I like to think that I am slowly going to work my way through the backlog, but so far, that hasn’t really happened outside of a few haphazard attempts that I abandoned not too long after starting.

However, my phone’s syncing is currently set to only show emails from the last seven days… and I realized that when I looked at my phone and saw only one remaining email from the last week, I felt pretty fantastic. That little burst of pride (how pathetic am I for taking pride in an empty inbox?), silly as it may be, got me motivated to keep it clear. With the possibility of (phone) inbox zero in front of me, I am much less inclined to procrastinate on the emails I receive – I want them out of my inbox, pronto! It turns out that all those experts were right to tell me to clear the slate, and that I should have listened to that advice much sooner.

I have to say, it kind of surprises me that I didn’t try this solution to Inbox Zero sooner. It just always seemed like cheating to me – as if I were irresponsibly declaring email bankruptcy instead of properly atoning for the “sin” of not responding. But when I think about it in another context, that logic doesn’t makes sense. For example, when dieting, everyone knows that one bad meal shouldn’t lead to another, and that you have to just start fresh and try again. If you binge on ice cream and chips one night, the best thing you can do is wake up in the morning and eat a healthy breakfast to start that day right – not starve yourself to try to make up for the night before. Every day is a fresh start and a chance to do better, and I know that I am prone to forgetting that and wasting a lot of time crying over spilled milk.

Maybe it’s not about trying to fix something that’s broken. Maybe it’s about starting over to do something better.

So – I am hereby dumping all my emails that came in before August into a new folder that I’ve titled Backlog. I’ve marked all of those emails as unread, so that the “Backlog” label will show up bold and will remind me subtly that I need to attend to them. In the meantime, my main inbox is a much more manageable size! Now that I can see only 15 emails in it instead of 500, I’m much more likely to want to crank those out.

Once I’m fully caught up on August, I’ll move the July email from the Backlog folder in, so that I’m constantly forcing myself to work through small bite-sized chunks of emails until I can process it all. And when I truly can’t take action on an email right away, I’m going to be diligent about Boomeranging it away until a date when I can deal with it, instead of it cluttering the view of things that are actually important.

The question is how embarrassed I will be to reply to an email from 2012, and whether I actually do it at all or just write those off as “too late, time to archive”? I’m going to try to be brave! So if you’ve ever emailed me without a response, or if I’ve abruptly stopped responding to a chain, get ready for some humble apologies to come 🙂


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