One man’s race toward a conquered e-mail inbox

E-mail has ruined my life. Well, it nearly ruined my ability to be effective at my real job. An inbox that always hovered near 300 unchecked emails had become a real obstacle to effectiveness. All those missives felt like a few hundred gnats flitting about, each waiting for either a swat, a blast of creative problem solving, or an observant eye followed by studied response. While I may never control all of the factors contributing to my inbox infestation, I did strike back today.

I feel like I earned my first merit badge for mastering a particularly distasteful task. After many fits and starts in which I would create modest goals — “today, I get my inbox down to below 200 unchecked email,” or “this week, I want to dip below 100 before I leave for the weekend” — today, I got up the brass to make the only meaningful strike in the e-mail wars: ZERO to go. Yep, I chose to conquer instead of divide.

I owe the inspiration to my wife, a regular witness to my anxiety attacks. Her good counsel over the weekend helped finally make me commit to eliminate the stench of outdated text, rotted requests, stale suggestions, and Cover-Your-Ass “Reply-to-Alls.” And the final push came from a trusted colleague who suggested I had to set my mental picture firmly: ZERO survivors! Every email must be dealt with today.

First, it bears noting that I have repeatedly documented my frustration with my email inbox. Organizational mavens I trust and seek out for counsel have provided websites, blog entries, DIY tactics, professional gurus, and more to kick me into high gear. None got me where I needed to be. But today, it all came together and I conquered my massive mail maelstrom.

There are two ingredients I used to beat back the fatal funk of forlorn documentation: the time to focus, and the willingness to take immediate action on every untended email..

The success of the plan was keyed by the fact that today is a holiday, which rendered many vacationing Time Bandits (colleagues) powerless to interfere with my self-centered project. No impromptu meetings, no hallway deliberations, no email tidal waves or Carbon Copy-fests that create inbox litter. The relative solitude of Labor Day turned into the perfect opportunity to focus on the beast beast.

1. Seniority Rules. I inverted my inbox and sorted it by date, oldest on top. I normally deal with email based on recency, so the newest issues get my attention first . I do this because in reading the most recent emails first, I can follow the preceding thread in sequence in one email, thereby eliminating both the propensity to respond to an early post without the benefit of the latter submission; and reducing the number of posts I have to read to get a complete situation report. Looking at the oldest stuff meant I could quickly assess which had already been concluded by face-to-face chats or the “recency” solution above.

2. Dump the dead weight. I set my sights on the target and promised to take no prisoners. I took advantage of Outlook’s nifty preview panel to quick-scan each email. I . . . and its still hard to say . . . I decided a nominal amount of social and professional dialogue and educational tips would be sacrificed for the greater good. I may miss a blood drive or movie night, but its a risk I can accept.

I isolated and quickly deleted list-serve discussions, sales mail, Outlook Updates, group distributions, and old event invites. I used the CTRL + DELETE buttons to kill single posts and the SHIFT + DELETE combo for mass email destruction. Few of these were from real individuals whose work depended on my response. So I didn’t bother to give them one!

This lightened my load from a staggering 360 emails to a manageable 200. And it gets better. I realized many of the untended communiques were progress updates on staff projects; things I had spot-checked along the way, then ignored because they didn’t require my response. Why I didn’t just delete them I will never know. But there went another 50 or so.

3. SPEED ROUND. Finally, I gathered the remaining 150 emails and began a triage exercise. I would either delete, file or respond to each. About 20 percent of these were CYA responses from others. These got deleted with glee. Another 50 percent simply needed to be filed; and the remaining 30 percent required some action or engagement on my part.

With the inbox count hovering in the low-100s after deleting and filing, I was quite motivated to power through and provide quick, but careful responses to the remaining posts. Most of these were less than one week old, suggesting my system of stockpiling dead mail in my inbox was frustrating but not negligent.

By 5:30 this evening, I had the list down to one unread email. As the street light came on, and the crickets started to chirp outside, I got the sign to get my butt home for dinner as I hit the OPEN button on that final unchecked email. I responded sweetly, mildly, succinctly, and with pleasant salutations. Just like in the old days.

Today, I won. For however briefly, I tasted the sweet nectar of control.

Thanks to Teri, first and foremost, for instilling in me the vision over the weekend to attack this challenge. Thanks to a trusted friend and colleague for helping drive home the need for me to quit stalling and take immediate action. And thanks for those who were part of the journey to get to this point. You each made a difference, and I finally did it.

If you have to manage mountains of data, content and news daily; then distribute, delegate, or delete it all to keep the balls balanced, you will appreciate the feat. “Nothing” never felt so good! And I left ZERO survivors.


2 responses to “One man’s race toward a conquered e-mail inbox

  1. Congratulations Matt! I too am a recent convert to Inbox Zero. The burden lifted from my mental shoulders is nothing short of amazing.

    I’ve been inspired by Michael Hyatt’s tweets about inbox zero, along with this post he has on the subject:

    Maybe you can find some additional helpful tips.

    Congrats again!

  2. Thanks Cheryl! For your longtime support of this effort. I am headed to read Hyatt’s post now.

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