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How to Get On Top of Email For Good
Have you ever looked at your inbox dozens of times a day and seen the same stuff that's been there for weeks? Months even? Have you done this recently? Maybe even today?
Are you almost praying for something new to come in, like this newsletter, so you can handle that instead of having to think about what you're going to do with the debt mountain you're now almost embarrassed to face?
Why does that happen? For the same reason we don't seem to make progress towards a big goal. We might well know what we can do next, but we don't know how long it's going to take to deal with it all.
The trick is to know the actual size of the work you're going to take on. If not all of it, then a chunk of it, like a milestone. Email debt doesn’t have milestones.
Once we know the size of the problem, we immediately know what kind of resources we need to marshal to face it. When I realised that this was why I still had email from months ago in my inbox, my approach changed drastically.
Let's say a friend calls you every so often and asks you for your company on a run. You'd love to, but wait, your friend runs ultramarathons!
"How far are we going?"
"Oh I don't know. We'll figure it out. Let's just get going!"
This is the point where you make your excuses. Who wants to go on a run where the end is completely unknown? You know it won't be as short as half a mile, just like you know you can't clear your inbox in half an hour, but what if it's 20 miles? Or 40? You can't even run that far, so it might take, well, forever. Who wants to run forever? (Well, apart from David Goggins, but let's face it, there is only ever going to be one of him!)
So what if we do find out it's a 20 mile run? What if our friend then says "Don't worry, we can run it a mile at a time instead. We'll run a mile a day for three weeks, and you can even have the last day off!" Well now it sounds fun. Like a challenge, an exciting, manageable challenge, the kind that will push us, but not break us.
We never know how long it will take to clear our email, so we wait until we have a day or two clear and go on a cleaning spree and feel great when for just a day, our inbox looks great again. And before you know it, maybe after a week, or two, you're back where you started, in your shame cave.
Also, every time you look at the same list of emails, you're wasting time, adding to your guilt and feeling shame at not responding. And you do this to yourself many times a day.
There is a part of your brain that sees not replying as a threat to your survival. Why? Because when we were tribal, being exiled meant death, so we are programmed for a degree of social coherence. Knowing this at even a subconscious level puts enormous stress on you, every time you look at your inbox.
It's time to put a stop to this madness.
We don't need a spring clean. We need a system. Here's what I do, and I allow no more than an hour a day on this until my email is pretty clear. I'm not interested in an obsessive inbox zero approach, but I am interested in only having emails I need to respond to today in my inbox.
This system works in addition or instead of any existing systems you use for your inbox, and I'm assuming you already know to unsubscribe from as many services that no longer serve you as possible, or at least redirect them to a separate folder; to not reply to everything, to delete ruthlessly and so on.
You will need an hour a day, and I reckon you could clear most inbox backlogs in less than a working week. Please don’t spend more than an hour a day purely on email. If tasks arise from email, make a note of those tasks and schedule them! Your inbox should not be a list of other people’s priorities.
1. First, archive everything older than two months. This is not so much email bankruptcy as a sensible debt management plan. You are not going to get around to those emails. Three months is too many emails still in your inbox for the next steps, two months catches stuff that you might still be forgiven for dealing with.
1. Set aside 25 minutes (Pmodoro fans rejoice). You are not allowed to do anything else in this time, so do what you need to do to focus
2. Using whatever marking feature your email client has, start going through your email from newest to oldest, marking those emails that are going to take you more than 2 minutes to deal with. Don't work out how much longer than two minutes it will take to deal with. Just mark and move on, until you've marked 10 or the timer runs out. We are going to work with batches of 10 later.
3. If the email is going to take less than 2 minutes, deal with it immediately, preferably just delete it if it needs no response and contains no information, or archive it. (GTD fans rejoice)
4. Once your timer runs out, no matter what, take a 5 minute break. Get away from your screen. Come back after 5 minutes and start another 25 minute timer.
5. Now go through your marked emails and estimate how long it will take to respond to each one. Don't obsess over accurate estimates if you're not used to estimation. You'll get better with practice. Write the times down for your marked emails, no more than 10. Your estimate should not take longer than 30 seconds.When you're done, you will have 10 or fewer emails for which you now know how long they will actually take to deal with. You know the size of the problem. Remember, just batches of 10 at a time.
6. In whatever time you have left, work on as many emails as you can that will fit in that time. If the time required is longer than the time you have available, put the task into your calendar, schedule it, and after grabbing what you need from the email and sticking it into the notes section of your calendar, archive the email.
Try shorter time periods and see how far you can get in the time you're allowed.
Let me know how you get on!