For some years I have been using what I call the ‘zero tolerance inbox’ . This avoids the visual and cognitive distraction of a bunch of emails vying, cuckoo-like, for your attention. In order to achieve this you need to triage (quadrage?) email ruthlessly:
- Delete emails that have no relevance for you
- File/archive information that needs no action but may need to be referred to later
- Turn emails into actions (you can use inbuilt tools eg Outlook tasks, I have my homebrew spreadsheet solution).
- Or if it can be dealt with immediately in under 2 minutes then do it then and there.
So this is the approved way of Getting Things Done.
However I found this is not optimal for a number of reasons – in this post I will describe my solutions
The first problem is that this takes to darned long. To even triage an email takes a few seconds. To file an attachment or turn into a task takes 30 seconds. And those tasks that can be done ‘right now’? Suffice to say that it will take, on average, about a minute per email so a days worth of emails will easily take an hour to go through. Doing this as they come in is to subject yourself to constant distraction from the task at hand.
The obvious solution is to protect time dealing with emails. Not at the beginning of the day (time of peak cognitive function) but at the end of the day, when this job, which important but not intellectually demanding, can be carried out. I added a warning to my email signature about not expecting an instant reply and ‘I read emails in the evening’. (incidentally, I’ve blogged before about ‘No email in the morning’ )
HOWEVER even this does not work. Why not? 2 reasons
- Some of your tasks may involve sending an email – then you open up the email, you see a full inbox and your brain goes ‘oh well, while I’m here…’.
- Some emails (rare but true) do actually need to be seen instantly – for example the one that says “that meeting about to start – has just been cancelled’.
My solution to this is simple. The TODAY folder. Which acts as a repository for emails that you are going to sort through (in the evening, remember?). In most email clients, you can configure a smart key to automatically send email to the Today folder. Having briefly scanned that it does not fit category (2) above – the ‘must read NOW’ email – and remember almost ALL emails can wait up to 24 hours before being read/actioned – you delegate to the TODAY folder and deal with later on (but it should be today – hence the name). Warning – this sounds easy but requires discipline!
It sounds like a semantic point but believe me getting it out of the inbox is massively helpful for your cognitive attention.
Of course – it does mean that you need to reserve some time to sort through the TODAY folder – and this will be non trivial time (about an hour). End of the day is about right (for me, the train journey home is a perfect opportunity to catch up on this). And of course by the time you finish the the TODAY folder should also be clear (hence, zero tolerance for this too).
So that’s my tip for today. The TODAY folder.