A New Mindset for Your Email Inbox

As I mentioned in a prior post, the Zero Inbox has become a part of the new Gold Standard of productivity. Without it, for example, it’s impossible to earn the higher belts described here in 2Time.

Most of the methods described to accomplish this target focus rightly on the new habits that are needed to maintain it.

However, they are likely to bear no fruit if the mindset held around email Inboxes never changes.  What’s sometimes needed for Zero Inbox to work is a radical change in the way the Inbox is seen and understood.

In industrial engineering terms, the Inbox needs to be seen as a buffer – a place of temporary storage for incoming email.  (Buffers are important because they act as a kind of staging area for further action.)

Here are some analogies we can be used to help us imagine what this means.  They are all everyday buffers that can be compared to the modern Inbox.  These are all temporary points of storage that are never meant to become permanent:

your kitchen sink — a temporary location for dirty dishes that is meant to be small enough to store a few items, but big enough to wash them.  It’s also a point of decision, as stuff that gets put in the sink is routed to different points such as:  the garbage disposal unit, the garbage can, the dishwasher, the drain-board, the cupboard, etc.  Your Inbox is like a kitchen sink.

a loading dock at a factory or warehouse — a temporary location for incoming goods and raw materials.  After they are received, a decision is made about where to put them next.  Problems occur when items aren’t removed fast enough to allow new incoming items to be received

a mouth – a temporary place of storage for food, smoke, gum, mouthwash, etc.  When something finds its way into your mouth you have to make a decision about how to dispose of it.  There is limited space, and you certainly don’t want too many items to stay there permanently, as they can cause problems e.g. fragments of food

your desk – a temporary place to store papers.  Many people violate this rule, and turn their desk from a place of active work to a dumping ground for half-finished projects, hoping that by keeping them in their line of sight, they won’t forget to work on them

a traditional snail-mail postbox –  the post office stops delivering once the postbox becomes full, and it’s a buffer that’s clearly designed to be cleared frequently

Plus others… a garbage can, driveway, car trunk, jeans pocket, etc.

There are many other everyday examples that can be used to paint a mental picture of how the Inbox should be understood.  The point here is simply to pick a favorite a single mental image, and stick to it.

If you have been abusing your Inbox and the result is a feeling of overwhelm, then the chances are good that you got to this place innocently.  You might follow the popular practice of skimming you email, looking for emergencies.  You delete the spam, and other irrelevant messages, and leave those that you need to get back to later in your Inbox.   You continue to act immediately on the emergent time demands throughout the day, and sometimes remain in perpetual motion as email pours into your Inbox faster than you can handle it.

You are hoping that by leaving email messages in plain sight (i.e. in the Inbox,) you’ll remember to come back to them later, and that they won’t fall through the cracks.

Most people make things even worse for themselves, by setting their Inboxes on auto-download, which produces a continuous and never-ending stream of messages.  Many also have audible and visual notifications via beeps, pop-ups and flashing colored lights.

When an email Inbox is abused it places a burden on you, the user, who must remain a mental picture of the items that it contains.  This is less of a problem when the number of items is small.  This practice doesn’t scale well, unfortunately, and things start falling through the cracks once the numbers increase, bringing on feelings of overwhelm.  Research indicates that problems start happening once the number of emails stored in an Inbox gets into double digits.

It’s at this point that you started to complain about getting too much email.

The answer, however, is not to cut the number of email by changing jobs or declaring “email bankruptcy.”  The only thing that works in the long-term is to develop new habits for working with email to prevent the Inbox from becoming overloaded and abused.

Users who want to take control of their Inboxes can start by turning off the auto-download and auto-notification features.  Instead, they should download email on a schedule, and then Empty the Inbox immediately, making use of folders and filters to store emails that contain time demands.  Time needs to be set aside each day to process email Inboxes, and it needs to be carefully allocated so that it consumes neither too much or too little space in the day.

Those who maintain the Zero Inboz are the least likely to allow important stuff in emails to fall through the cracks and get buried in tons of messages.  Creating a visual image in the user’s mind is an important step to implementing the right practices.