Inbox Zero

I’ve realized that in all of the chaos surrounding the start of the school year, I never got around to blogging about Inbox Zero!

Like many schools and institutions around the world, email has become an integral tool at UNIS. If the email server ever goes down for even 10 minutes (which, thanks to our tech department, very rarely happens!) there is a hint of panic amongst the staff.

Unfortunately, even as our reliance on email as a mode of communication has increased to the point of being absolutely essential, our ability to handle the vast quantities of email that we receive on a daily basis has barely evolved if at all. In fact, one of the most common complaints/concerns that I hear amongst our teachers is that there are too many emails sent.

When I first heard about Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero presentation that he gave at the Google Campus in 2006, I was instantly intrigued. It was billed as the best hour that one could spend and I agree! I have probably saved 10 times that or more since I instituted this system 1.5 years ago.

While I highly encourage everybody to check out Mann’s original presentation, the basics are below. I presented this to some interested staff to start the year and it was pretty well received!

If I needed one sentence to summarize Mann’s idea, it would be this: Stop living in your Inbox! Instead of being a slave to email and living in your inbox, convert your relevant messages into predefined actions (mine are delete, do right nowto do later , and reference, in that order) and keep your inbox empty. Don’t use your inbox as a filing cabinet (it should be for new messages that haven’t been processed yet) and don’t spend a lot of time filing messages into subfolders (almost everything goes into that generic reference folder; if I need to find it I will search for it later).

One of the themes for my presentation on the subject (which, I admit, unabashedly steals large portions from Mann, including a few slides which I didn’t have time to prepare myself!) is to think about the analog equivalents of digital tools. This is why you’ll see quite a few references to Mad Men.

Nobody in their right minds (certainly not Don Draper!) would keep all of their correspondence stacked up in their “In Tray” on their desk. Why do we feel we can do that with email? If a phone message were to cross your desk, most people would act on it immediately, either by calling the person back, making a note in their calendar or throwing it in the trash. Why do we treat email any different?

Ultimately, Inbox Zero is about converting messages into actions and then disposing of those messages. It has helped give me a sense of purpose on busy days when I would have normally been overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of messages in my inbox. Now I know exactly where I need to go in order to find things I need to get done!

How do you handle email at school? What systems work for you?

Image credits:
Inbox Zero Presentation by Merlin Mann licensed under CC BY NC ND
Cuffs6 by banspy licensed under CC BY

2 thoughts on “Inbox Zero

  • September 8, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Hey Clint,

    I’m not as familiar with Mann’s stuff, but the ongoing conversation you were having with Mary Worrell on Twitter prompted me to do my own research into GTD-type stuff. I thought it made sense esp considering I was going to be spending some time with teachers helping them get Outlook up and running to work efficiently. On a bit of risk-taking whim, I asked our tech director if we could purchase this lovely resource, and he said yes.

    I have to tell you – I have implemented it and been using it and WOW what a difference. My Inbox is still a bit cluttered due to the stuff I had in there before I implemented the GTD guide, but everything is much more manageable. I made a few adjustments to Allen’s suggested Task categories mostly bc I needed a completely separate group of categories for my Calendar items — and I think most teachers would, too, because of how we label our timetable, etc. However, the way it works is great. I use Calendar categories for those items (meeting requests and appointments) and I use the GTD categories for everything else. I find myself processing email in a completely different way, similarly to what you describe above.

    However, I’ll admit that I actually am one of those people who, prior to email, would keep stacks of papers / notes, messages, etc on my desk! And it would pile up. And eventually I would have to go through all of it and weed stuff out. In fact I often still find that I’m disorganized in that way at home. For some reason I have always been more organized at school than at home… but that’s another story.

    Thanks for sharing. Check out the GTD Outlook setup guide – you UNIS peeps might find it useful.

  • September 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    @Adrienne Thanks for the link to the guide! I knew there were a whole bunch of resources out there, and I think there might even be Outlook plug-ins that you can run to make it more GTD-friendly, but I was very happy with the simple system that Mann professes. As he says, it is ‘advanced common sense’ but it makes a huge difference!

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