5 life lessons you can learn from emptying your inbox

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It’s day 7 of our quest for an empty inbox, and I’m now at inbox zero once again. What I’ve discovered is that while it takes me less than a week to empty my inbox, it takes more than a week to blog my methodology, so I’ll be writing further posts to clarify a few more pieces of the process. That includes a continued discussion of how to set up filters that handle the messages in your “filters needed” and “worfklows needed” folders, so if you still have some messages left there, don’t worry! Today, I’m going to help you get through those last few e-mails sitting in your inbox, and talk about next steps.

If you’ve been clearing out 20% of your inbox each day for the past 5 days, you’re down to your last 20%. You may even be further ahead. But you’ve probably got a handful of e-mails that are still in your inbox because you are, on some level, avoiding them. These e-mails, more than anything else, illuminate your core personal or professional blocks. Forcing yourself through them — the way you have to in order to empty your inbox — is not just a path to e-mail efficiency, but a very meaningful exercise in character-building. Here are some of the lessons that may lie waiting in your inbox — lessons that may help you make peace with information overload:

  1. The sushi will come around again. One type of e-mail that typically gets stuck in my inbox is what I’ll call the potential opportunity. It’s a consulting inquiry, partnership solicitation, conference invitation or other opportunity that sounds tempting but for whatever reason doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe I’m too busy to take it on, or I can’t afford to say yes, or I have a gut feeling it’s not a fit. But it sounds like the kind of thing I might regret not doing, and so even though I can’t commit to a yes, I can’t bear to deliver a “no”, either. My friend and coach Jeff Balin came up with the metaphor that has helped me come to terms with these situations. It’s the experience of sitting at one of those conveyor belt sushi places: if an awesome-looking bit of sushi comes along while your plate is really full, you may be tempted to snatch it up even though you don’t have room for it. But if you can let it float by, it may come back around once you’ve got some room on your plate…and if not, some other delicious thing will come along instead.
  2. Make no your default answer. This was one of the recommendations I made in my HBR New Year’s post last year, which talked about the importance of learning to say no. When it comes to saying no, my mostly-empty inbox has been my best teacher, since it’s forced me into the discipline of saying no to things promptly rather than letting them linger. That’s only been possible by making no my default answer; unless something is so amazing that you absolutely can’t bear to say no to it, say no. (My bet is that at least half of the hard-to-answer e-mails that currently remain in your inbox can be resolved by applying this principle, right now.) One way I’ve made it easier to say no is by writing a few all-purpose “no” messages that I’ve saved as signatures in my e-mail program, like the response that I use for “can we meet so I can pick your brain?” e-mails:

    The growing interest in social media has been great for us, but as a result I’m only able to book meetings on a consulting basis. If you’d like to schedule a consultation, I’m happy to book something; an initial ninety-minute consult is $375.

    I rarely send messages like this verbatim, but it makes it easier for me to face those awkward e-mails (I always feel rude when I decline a meeting request!) and it’s helped me learn to say no more promptly.

  3. Disappointing someone does not erase your worth as a human being. A few years into our business, we ran into the growing pains that a lot of small businesses encounter, when we suddenly found ourselves so overcommitted that we missed a number of deadlines and disappointed a number of clients. It only took a couple of months to build the systems and staff that got us out of that crunch, but they were two of the worst months of my life. The idea that I was disappointing people was completely soul-destroying, and I realized that it was because on some fundamental level I felt like my basic worth as a human being stemmed from my ability to always meet other people’s expectations. But there are moments in life when you’re going to let people down, and learning to live with that — and not letting it destroy your sense of self-worth — is crucial to performing with integrity and excellence the other 98% of the time. Once you accept that you will occasionally disappoint people, you can deal with those e-mails that require you to say no to something, to confess that you’re behind on a deadline, or even (ideally rarely) to change your mind and un-commit to a commitment you’d previously accepted. Send those painful e-mails, and you may even get a little more comfortable with your own imperfection.
  4. Don’t defer, decide. How many of the e-mails in your inbox are at least the third e-mail in a thread? You know the pattern: someone e-mails you with a request, task, idea or invitation that you can’t whole-heartedly commit to, but aren’t ready to say no to, either. So you reply with a request for more information, or ask them to e-mail you again in two weeks when your schedule is clear. Their reply comes back with the additional information or after a little time has passed, and it doesn’t fundamentally change the challenge, which is for you to make a decision and live with it. Most of the e-mails I’m tempted to defer have only about a 10 or 20% of changing my initial instinct by providing more time or move information. So if you know that you’re overwhelmingly likely to decide on a certain course — whether it’s saying no, or booking someone into your schedule, or sending someone the file they’ve asked for — just do it with your initial reply, and save yourself a lot of additional e-mail. If you can make these decisions when you first read an e-mail, rather than setting it aside for a later decision and response, you’ll become more decisive in your offline life, too.
  5. You’re not the only one with a crushing inbox. One type of e-mail I frequently avoid is the e-mail that’s been sitting in my inbox for longer than a week thanks to an e-mail pile-up. It’s so excruciating to deal with the e-mail that I’m horribly, shamefully overdue in addressing that I’d rather avoid it than send an embarrassingly overdue reply. The only solution is to grit your teeth and begin with, “I’m so sorry for this overdue reply; I’m just catching up on a terrible e-mail backlog.” If I can confess to an e-mail backlog — after writing a dozen blog posts on my commitment to inbox zero!! — so can you. And you’ll discover what I have: in a world where just about everyone is coping with e-mail overload, people understand if you’re occasionally overdue with a reply.

Almost two years into my life as a steady inbox emptier, I’ve found that the skills involved in emptying my inbox have migrated to other aspects of my life. I’m better at saying no. I’m less avoidant of difficult conversations. I’m more accepting of my own limitations.

I hope that 2011 brings you that kind of discovery. We’re living in an era of information overload: the challenge you have getting through your inbox is likely symptomatic of a larger set of challenges in keeping up with the ever-accelerating flood of tweets, messages and networks. You can let that flood carry you along, or you can focus on where you want to go, and use the challenge of filtering as a daily practice in clarifying your goals and exercising the discipline to achieve them.  Processing your e-mail to zero every day can be the core of that practice, and give you botha source of insight into your own personal and professional blocks, and a way to develop new habits that get past them.

All that, and a much, much cleaner inbox.

2 Comments on this site

  1. William Azaroff

    Hi Alex. Happy New Year!

    I have a question about zero inbox (and forgive me if you’ve covered this and I’ve missed it). I like the concept as a metaphor, but it does seem like a step too far. I see people at work who have thousands of emails in their inbox, and it amazes me they can get anything done. Decluttering seems a necessity. But reducing the inbox content to zero seems to me like throwing out all your furniture when you clean your house.

    I keep my inbox down to under 25 at any given time. I use flags to ensure I deal with certain messages that same day and the rest is like a to-do list. If an email hangs around too long it is usually because I can’t deal with, am procrastinating or need to delegate. I then take appropriate action. If my inbox gets close to 50 then I know I’m falling behind and something else is usually going on, like a looming deadline or something big is afoot.

    So what’s important about reducing my inbox, something I check regularly, as a reminder board? And then just file and filter away emails that I need to keep but don’t need to act on?

  2. Meredith Kelly Oke

    Paying attention and being consistent with anything always yields personal discovery, my inbox is no exception. This is a great reminder that I can grow through any activity, even clearing out my email!
    http://www.meredithkellyoke.com

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