Zero Inbox Article in the Jamaica Gleaner


imagescan028Unfortunately, this article wasn’t carried online when it was printed in the press on Aug 29th.

Nevertheless, here is the original text.


The Zero Inbox (for email) sounds to many corporate professionals as some kind of silly fantasy.  “It’s impossible” they argue, to manage their email in a way that leaves their Inbox empty almost all the time!

Some have tens of thousands of messages sitting in their Inbox, waiting for them to be processed on a perfect day in the future which unfortunately never comes.  Instead, email that is sent to them gets lost in the e-clutter, much in the same way that a messy desk is a good place to lose important documents.

By the same token, overflowing Inboxes are good places to lose track of commitments stored in email messages.  But whose fault is it?  Is it the senders’, the receivers’ or the company’s?  The problem goes back to the process we learned when we first started using email.

Back then, we responded quickly, if we could.  We only got a handful of messages and we made sure to read them as soon as they came in.

Fast forward to today, and the 150 or so email messages that the average professional receives each day.  Most people also have a visual or audible pop-up that alerts them when email arrives. Many don’t know that this feature can be switched off, and live in the ongoing irritation and distraction that comes with over 100 notifications each day.

They often feel overwhelmed by too many messages, so they decide to do some triage to survive: they scan their Inbox in order to decide what’s urgent, what they can delete right away and what can be left for later.  Then they rush off to the next task or meeting.  When they return, they repeat these actions with new messages.

Unfortunately, this partial-processing doesn’t work.  By leaving their email in their Inbox, it inevitably piles up.

Last year’s email gets buried by last month’s email, which gets buried by last week’s email.  All of it is sitting in the Inbox, waiting to be processed on that “perfect day,” because there’s always a greater urgency to respond to immediate matters.

Some people “fix” the problem by coming in early in the morning, staying late at night, or sacrificing weekends and holidays, all in order to work off the backlog of their half-processed email.  In other words, they are admitting that they are unable to get their job done  in the allotted hours, leading some to hire an assistant, blame the company or quit in frustration.

What they don’t know is that their overflowing Inbox is often caused by their own bad habits.  It’s an early sign that their time management system needs to be upgraded.  Most ignore this fact, however, and it’s not until several people complain of their lack of responsiveness that they decide that something is wrong.

The Zero Inbox
Professionals who are able to maintain a Zero Inbox are not the ones with easy jobs or more hours in the day.  Instead, their time management system incudes habits that allow them to process all their email effectively each day.

Here are the habits they engage in that helps them accomplish this feat.

Habit #1 — Train Others to Avoid Email for Urgent Communication
They let colleagues know that email is an unacceptable method for communicating emergencies.  Why is this a good strategy?

Firstly, email is unreliable, and there is no way to guarantee that an urgent message has been received, let alone read.  Too many  messages never get delivered at all.  Secondly, urgent messages are prone to errors in understanding, due to the limited skill that most have with words, and the inherent difficulty of sharing emotions via text.  I think you’re joking when you are trying to be serious, and don’t realize that you want immediate action. Thirdly, communication via email is much slower than the alternatives:  a conversation, text message or IM’s via Skype or Yahoo Messenger.

Given the problems of email, it shouldn’t be used in this way. Once this agreement is in place with others, it’s easy to implement Habit #2.

Habit #2 — Replying to Email on a Schedule
Many Outlook users are unaware of the fact that they can turn off the auto-download features on their programmes, thereby controlling the rate at which email flows into their Inbox.  (The change is a simple one to make and can be found via a YouTube search.)

This change protects the Inbox from unwanted email, and allows users to download email upon demand.  In this way, they can download email at scheduled times in the day when they have the time and energy to do what I call Zero-to-Zero processing.  They start with an empty Inbox, download and process their email, and end up with it empty once again.

The truth is that Inboxes were designed as temporary places of storage, like your kitchen sink or the back-seat of your car.  In the same way that nothing is supposed to be stored permanently in these places, you should treat your  Inbox as a temporary place of storage.  This following simple process can be followed:
a.  Read email
b.  Decide on how to dispose of the time demand it makes (if any)
c.  Delete or move the email
d.  Repeat

At the end of the process, the Inbox is once again empty. The key to making this habit work is to schedule enough to process all the items in your Inbox, so that you leave the activity with the Inbox empty.

While these habits might be easy to understand, most people face a significant challenge in putting them into practice.  For many, there are habits to unlearn and new habits to learn, and making the change requires conscious effort.  On the other side of the change, however, is a new-found freedom from overwhelm and overload, keeping you on top of all your commitments, and able to meet the expectations of colleagues.