Put the 0 in 2011: 7 days to Inbox Zero

I’ve done more than my share of blogging and bragging about how I got to — and stayed at — Inbox Zero. But as the Yiddish proverb more or less says, “Man empties, and God laughs.” In practice this translates into what I will call the First Law of Inbox:

Your email volume increases in exponential proportion to your capacity to process e-mail.

This is the online correlate of the widely-observed problem with widening roads: no sooner do you make traffic flow just a little more quickly, than a few more people decide to commute by car. The same holds true for e-mail: if you’re good at processing your e-mail, it only encourages them. “Them” are all the people with the temerity to expect you to reply to their e-mail: your clients, your parents, your friends, your boss, your spouse.

If you’re really serious about keeping an empty inbox, you need to tackle the problem from three sides:

  1. Demand management: Sending the signals (or non-signals) that keep demand for your e-mail attention to a manageable level.
  2. Supply management: Determining the total supply of the resource you will make available — in this case, the attention you devote to processing e-mail.
  3. Productivity: The efficiency with which you tackle your e-mail, optimizing for TEPPH (Total Emails Processed Per Hour) while minimizing VIEYI (Very Important Emails You Ignore).

Last year I improved my productivity and supply management enough to hit January 1 2010 with an empty inbox. But I have significantly degraded on demand management (a polite way of saying, people, please stop e-mailing me!) so here I am on December 24th with a staggering 1123 e-mail messages (168 of them unread!) in my inbox.

But I’m not giving up hope. I’m going to enter the new year with an empty inbox — and unlike last year, I’m not going to do it by spending the final hours of 2010 on the job of e-mail triage. Instead, I’m going to deploy a steady series of inbox-chopping tactics. Join me over the next 7 days to enter 2011 with a clean slate.

Instant karma update: I accidentally spammed a bunch of people with my e-mail vacation auto-reply while setting up my system for weeklong e-mail triage. If you’re one of the people who got an auto-reply to an e-mail you sent days and days ago, my apologies! I will indeed be looking at it — in fact, I’m setting up this new system specifically because I don’t want messages to languish in my inbox without a reply!

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