Inbox zero, the state of having your email inbox, your paper mail inbox, and your brain inbox ("Oh, I really should remember that I need to....") empty, with everything that's come in decided on or processed, is a goal many of us have, following the Getting Things Done mantra.
I sure do. I usually fail. But sometimes I succeed. How I fail, and how I succeed, are worth thinking about, because, looking at what goes wrong, I have discovered two basic rules that make success more likely (this applies mostly to the email box, which is the fastest to fill and the hardest to empty):
- Don't leave your inbox visible. Check it at some wide intervals during the day--every couple of hours is probably a reasonable interval. And don't look at it first thing in the morning. Work steadily for at least a couple of hours at some important project before you open it up.
- When you finally do open it up, give yourself a decent block of time and process the emails in received order, one at a time, without skipping any.
Yeah, I know. That's a bit like saying that the rules for picking up a gigantic boulder are:
- Work out and develop gigantic, awesome muscles.
- Pick that sucker up!
But it's not, really. Though you could probably stand to do more lifting than you do, right?
I've found that if I watch emails come in, I am driven to respond to them right away. Then I ignore other, more fraught, difficult, or time-consuming emails. They pile up, and then, like abandoned houses, attract a lot of riffraff in various other neglected emails. In a day or so, I have a mess again.
The same is true of my paper inbox. If I deal with bills and statements every day or so, I have no problem. If the emotional pain of one specific one causes me to delay it, it too serves as a dark area where other stuff accumulates.
Ideas are really the same way. Sometimes there is not good reason why I'm avoiding some thought, but I can see that I am. Right now I have to make plane reservations to go to something not particularly onerous, but that somehow has become something I am avoiding. All sorts of other stuff has gotten backed up because of that, and I risk encountering high ticket prices when I actually go to do it.
So, you see, I haven't solved the problem. But I do know what practices make the problem worse, and which decrease it. Then it's up to me.