Your Personal Effectiveness Program (Part 3 – Tame Your Inbox)

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Today you continue your journey to improve your Personal Effectiveness by tackling that out-of control email inbox. Yeah, it’s out of control, and you know it. But you can’t quite figure out how to tame it. Before we get started, understand one thing: you’re worth more than the email that comes your way.

So why do you inevitably find you are a slave to it?

Does it give you great joy reacting to other people’s issues, problems, and random ramblings. Probably not. Then it must be the satisfaction you get tearing through those messages and emptying out your inbox each day. Oh, right…you’re not doing that.

It is tempting to treat email as a growing list of to-do items, but this is not how to best control your inbox. Treating email this way, leads you to a never-ending pile of things you need to do for other people. This is not effective.

You need to look at your email inbox as a place where stuff needs to be seen, sorted,
saved, or scrubbed.

The secret to managing your inbox lays in how you look at your email. When you read your email, you have a choice. You can decide how to deal with items when you first see them or when to deal with them.

Which is the better choice?

It is better to first decide HOW to deal with items when you first see them than WHEN you will act on them. Once you know HOW to deal with them, everything else falls into place. So always approach your inbox with the intent to figure out HOW to deal with email messages.

Before we get to the steps to Zenbox (the magnificent reality of zero emails in your inbox), we have to set a one very important rule:

Look at each email just once.

What?! That’s impossible!

No, it’s not impossible. It’s just a new habit you have to form. It will take time to develop this habit. It won’t be easy, but you can do it! And you’ll be thrilled with the time you save and the clarity of your organization process.

Ok, next time you jump into your email, you are doing so with the intention to act on HOW to deal with each message. And you only want to do this ONCE. You do not want to go in over and over and over reading the same thing multiple times. Read it once and ACT!

All right, you’re in your inbox. Decide what you want to do with the first message. Do you want to act on it immediately? Do you want to set a time to work on it later? Or do you want to save the item for later reference?

To make the most of this process, try the Two-Minute Drill.

The Two-Minute Drill is a rigorous activity that encourages you to get more stuff done quicker. The concept takes only a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master. That doesn’t mean you should give up before getting started. It just means that you need to be diligent and keep practicing until it becomes a deep-rooted habit.

This habit helps you determine whether an email is actionable. If it is, and it will take you just two minutes to accomplish, get it over with and do it right now. Otherwise, decide to delete it, delegate it, or delay it to a better time.

If it is not actionable, deleting is the best option. Delegating is the second best.

But if you have to act on it yourself, and it will take longer than two minutes, delay it to a scheduled time when you can deal with it appropriately.

It’s important to set a date and time when you will actually work on this activity. If you don’t schedule it, it will sit in your inbox and create more clutter. We are trying to de-clutter. Don’t make it worse by throwing old emails back into the mix. You don’t want to waste time reading it again. Read, decide, act!

What if your message is not actionable, but it does contain some really important information?

Now it’s time to save, but don’t just save it in the email form. You want to focus on getting to Zenbox, remember? Zero emails in your inbox.

Saving Emails

Create a process to Save Out – save items OUTSIDE of your email program.

The Save Out is how you deal with those items that cannot be immediately acted upon, deleted, or delegated. The big idea here is deciding what to do with all of those emails that contain attachments, reference material, or stuff you just might need someday.

Let’s make one thing clear. Email was not designed to be a storage tool. It is a communication tool.

Let’s use it for that and get all of that data out of there. I know it’s tempting to tuck messages away into one of those 253 specific email folders you’ve created to be more organized. But if you store it in your email program, you’ll end up reading all sorts of other emails when you go back in there.

Again, huge time waster. Get that stuff out of there!

There are two types of data you need to save out from you inbox: attachments and messages.

Let’s deal with attachments first. Most attachments are for quick, one-time viewing. After that, they should be trashed. So do that – look at them once and immediately delete the email.

For those that require future reference, store them in a folder just like you would any other file. If it is the latest phone list for your department, file it away to an admin folder. If it is the new social media compliance policy, file it too.

Just drag and drop these files from your email to an appropriate folder. Just make sure you put them somewhere memorable or at least easily searchable.

And when you’re done, delete that email. The last thing you need is to store the same file in two places.

But what do you do with emails that have the critical info in the body of the message? There is no attachment, it’s actually in the message itself.

These are a little trickier. Again, it’s tempting to just put it into a mailbox folder, but try this instead. Copy the important part of the message out of the email and paste it into a new Word document. Save the file and give it a good name; something meaningful and easily searchable. Then, treat it just like any other reference file, and save it to an appropriate folder.

Scheduling Emails

Now what about those emails that require some sort of action on your part? The ones that take longer than two minutes. The ones I told you to schedule for a specific date and time.

For these, you are going to create a new calendar appointment. Pick the date and time that you want to act on this item. Give it a good Subject and in the Location field write the next first step that is required for this action item.

[For more info on Next First Steps, read Your Personal Effectiveness Program, Part 3.]

For example, if your boss sends you a message reminding you to secure that deal with Watson and Watson, but you can’t act on it right now, create an Appointment in your Calendar for the day you will tackle that assignment. In the Subject line write Secure Watson Deal; in the Location line write the phone number for Mr. Watson so you don’t have to look it up later.

You want to be ready to work on that item immediately.

Now fill in any other details you want to capture in the body of your new appointment. Oh, and if you are queued by color, remember to select a Category before you save and close your appointment. That will help you identify items more quickly and easily as your calendar becomes more congested.

[For more information on color queues read: Your Personal Effectiveness Program, Part 1.]

Ok, now that you’ve saved out all you can from your inbox, it should be pretty bare. If you are meticulous about this discipline, you’ll find that you have achieved Zenbox in a few days or weeks. Like I said earlier, this is not an easy task. It takes diligence and resilience, but once it is a habit, you won’t ever go back to your old ways.

Now to get you started quickly, here’s a tip that will motivate you to clean out that inbox right away.

The Skim and Flip is a process where you do a quick run from top to bottom of your entire inbox.

Here’s how it works. Start at the top and quickly skim each Subject line. If you can delete it, do so immediately. If you can process and complete it in less than two minutes, do that. If it will take longer than two minutes, skip it and keep on scanning – get through the easy stuff first.

Once you get to the bottom, you’ll be pretty tired. But look at that inbox – you’ve cut it down to something manageable. Congratulate yourself and get back to it…you’re not done yet.

Now you have to flip that inbox upside down so your oldest messages are on top and the newest are on the bottom.

Why, you ask?

One of the biggest reasons your inbox grows and grows is because it’s built on a pile of things you’ve been procrastinating on.

When we can’t see the bottom of the list, we tend to forget about those items. And sometimes they are lost forever. But bringing them to the top creates a constant reminder of just how long we have been letting things go. It ain’t pretty, so get cracking on those old emails to reach Zenbox.

Start deleting, delegating and putting those messages where they belong – in proper folders OUTSIDE of your mailbox.

Your Mindful Moment:

The best way to keep your inbox from blowing up? Send less email and less will be showing up.

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