After that entry I was minimally successful at keeping my inbox empty. And I still had one very bad habit: if something arrived in my inbox that needed to be done but couldn't happen right away, I left it there until I did it. When would I ever learn?
Well, the answer to that is August 22, 2008. I don't remember where I got the link, and I found this page with a video by Merlin Mann talking about his Zero Inbox philosophy. None of the concepts were rocket science: there are 5 actions you can take on incoming emails:
Delete: I wasn't deleting enough. Does everything really require a response? No. Delete.
Delegate: I'm a very compliant person. I'm very quick to take on too many responsibilities and say yes. I'm working on this (no, I didn't buy any magazines for candles to the kid who came to my door yesterday, and I thanked him for offering). So for me, delegation starts with saying, NO I WILL NOT DO THIS--at least internally. Then ASK someone else to do it. I've been working on this one over the years and am getting better and better at it.
Respond: This one is not a challenge--I'm pretty quick to respond to people.
Defer: This one I was doing all wrong. I was deferring by letting it sit in my inbox. NO NO NO! I'll get back to this in a second.
Do: I probably do too much of this. Just take the action now. Touch it once. The problem is that I can so easily get distracted by doing requests that come in that are of low importance or urgency, when there's other more important and urgent things to do. So don't do too much doing.
In Mann's words, the most important thing to do when having an over-full inbox is to "simply stop sucking." I love this! He suggested creating a DMZ folder (Google DMZ if you don't know it) and putting all inbox contents there. Deal with that as you go, but don't leave it in the inbox. Start fresh with the inbox and stop letting them pile up. This works! I stopped sucking immediately, and it felt great.
Getting back to the deferring, the inbox is NOT a successful way to defer. I now spend a bit more energy identifying the things I really want to do and saying no to those that I don't or won't. I then defer by putting the item in my calendar on the date I will do it.
If I take an action on an email by sending an inquiry, thus needing to wait for a response before more action, I flag the email as a task to complete, and put it in a new folder I created called "Waiting."
If something is just kind of there--not really significant but I don't want to lose it--I'll flag it and add a reminder date, and stick it in the DMZ folder. Maybe not the best strategy, and at least it's out of my inbox.
None of these concepts are new or earth-shattering--indeed, I learned most of these concepts from Patricia Clason years ago when I took her time management course. It simply took a decision to be really conscious and disciplined about it. Both of these ingredients are crucial to keeping an empty inbox, which for me means having a much more relaxed and orderly life. I continue to whittle down on the DMZ folder, and will one day perhaps delete it altogether (hopefully it will be empty. ;o}).
I'm practicing the same discipline on my desktop: nothing remains on it for more than a day. The receipts I put on from Home Depot last night I entered into Quicken this morning and filed, except for the return I have to make, so that is going out to be rubber-banded on the item and put into my trunk on the next visit.
I find as I follow these practices life is a lot more enjoyable. While I have experienced many long periods of having a buried desk and a flooded inbox, I know very viscerally that these things drain my energy and put me in a funk. Having clear space helps me feel like I can breathe.
How's your breathing?