November 6, 9:45pm CT:
"No new mail!" Sweet words.
I got to Inbox zero at the office ten months ago, but it was much harder to do the same at home. I couldn't dedicate concentrated time to slashing the backlog, so I had to go at it gradually. It took two months to get through the last ten or so, while also managing incoming email.
Last January I wrote about the techniques I used at work ...
... after 20 years of struggling with email, I have finally figured out how to do it.
... The most important intervention was reducing inflow. Of course I got rid of all email lists, newsletters and the like -- if an organization can't figure out blogs they're unlikely to have anything useful to tell me.
Most of all though, I reduced the number of email replies and misdirected emails that I get. I reduced the number of email replies by, paradoxically, spending more time crafting precise responses, and by being quicker to convert dysfunctional email to a meeting or phone call.
I craft my response to an email so that no further correspondence should be necessary. If an email discussion goes beyond two cycles that's a meeting. It's almost always, in this context, a brief, productive, and satisfying meeting. The body of the meeting appointment, by the way, includes the last email sent. (In Outlook drag and drop the email on the calendar icon.)
I reduced the number of emails I had to reply to by gently educating my correspondents about what goes on the To line. The To line should include only people with tasks - such as the single person who should respond. I reduced the time required to process and triage email by gently teaching about the correct use of the subject line. It should tell the reader what the email is about and what's needed. I change the subject line when I reply to precisely describe my replay -- including an answer summary...
Those techniques still work. I think I've actually improved the quality of all of our division's email -- some memes are contagious.
Ten months later I'm even better at deleting, at cutting off email by going directly to actions, and at scheduling thoughtful responses. The best killer of email noise remains the well crafted reply that allows no response. I'm very good at editing the 'email tail' so it tells a story in a small space.
These are work techniques though. At work productivity is our goal and email is a mixed blessing. It's a means to an end.
Personal email is different. I don't like getting email at work, but I do like to hear from friends and family! I'm not trying to make them better correspondents. (Emily, btw, does email very well.)
So at home I had to use slightly different techniques. I also use different software at home -- Gmail, Toodledo/Todo.app, and Google Calendar. This is what I do at home ...
- I forward email that requires more than a few minutes to my toodledo email connector and archive the message. Then I schedule times to work on those.
- Since Google threads emails by subject, when I replay I expose subject lines and revise them to prevent message loss in threads.
- At home as at work I use iPhone Mail.app to triage messages during down times and write short and quick replies.
- I long ago eliminated any email lists from my personal account. It if doesn't have a feed, it's not for me.
- I'm much better at responding quickly rather than deferring for a time that never comes.
- I keep my replies short - blogs are for rambling on about space, politics and fate.
Inbox zero zero. It's a good feeling.
Update 11/10/10: Past posts of mine, and a PPT shared via Google Docs
- A presentation on inbox zero from early 2010 - specifically for the corporate setting
- Gmail's biggest missing feature - and it's a whopper.
- Getting Things Done and Managing Email with Lookout for Outlook (2004 - now I use Windows Search and my approach is a bit different in other ways)
- Beating email - it's doable. Here's how. (July 2008 - I've moved another notch up since that time)