Approaching the inbox—with a shovel (or maybe a bulldozer), tea and lots of chocolate

I’m in favor of keeping a close-to-empty inbox. In theory. I have managed to get mine nearly empty, from time to time.

There are good reasons do to it: All those undealt-with messages create background stress. And it’s a waste of time to keep re-opening the same messages only to continue leaving them there, unresolved.

But like so many vaunted time management strategies, the empty inbox is hard to maintain once you’re past the initial exhilaration of seeing it nice and clean.

Ah, emptiness

I’ve been reading Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy. Hurst certainly isn’t the first to recommend clearing out your inbox regularly. (Merlin Mann, for one, is writing a book about it.) But I like that Hurst doesn’t make things too complicated. With each message your choices are to…

  • delete or file it (if it’s an FYI);
  • act on it (if the action takes under two minutes) and then delete it; or
  • add the task to your to-do list (if it will take longer than two minutes), then delete it.

Something else I like: He recommends dealing with personal email first—savoring it. OK, that’s different! I’m all for rewarding yourself first and making personal life primary. That’s a value that draws a lot of us to the entrepreneurial life.

Now, in order to get to that happy “Steady-state” where the emails are flowing right along day after day, you must first go through the radical process of “Induction”—clearing out your inbox in one intense session lasting several hours. (BTW, note that Hurst has achieved the minimum requirement for a bestselling time management philosophy—cool terms for common functions.) During Induction, you have to be especially tough (brutal) about unread newsletters and such. Delete, delete, delete.

Then you sort so that the oldest messages are on top and deal with them one by one: either file, take quick action, or plunk them onto your to-do list. And delete.

And none of this almost-empty business for Hurst. It’s gotta be all the way to zero. Otherwise, he argues, you’re doing the hard work without getting the nice refreshing payoff of total emptiness. Plus the emails that accumulate tend to be complex, making it progressively harder to get back to that blissful empty state.

Getting ready for the purge

I’m gearing up to tackle my own inbox, which has 223 emails in it right now. I want this to work, so I’m thinking through potential obstacles. My reservations:

– Can Induction really be completed in a few hours? And am I OK with the level of brutality required?

– What do I do about the emails that require pondering? The ones that contain messages or that link to articles worth contemplating (maybe for future blog posts), or rereading, or printing out, or deciding about, or…? I think I know the answer to this—move them into their own folder, called something like “Read-contemplate-decide”—maybe a subfolder in my Blog ideas folder. Or print them out to take with me for when I’m waiting at the bus stop or the checkout line. I’ve been leaving them in the inbox to remind me to read-contemplate-decide-blog-about them. Since I’m not doing the reading, this system isn’t working. We’ll see if shoveling them into a folder works better.

– How do I manage that consarned two-minute guideline? Tasks that should take me two minutes nearly always take longer. Not sure if that’s from me being a perfectionist or being overly optimistic about estimating time or what. Maybe I’ll just track myself for a while—set the timer for each supposedly-two-minute action, see how long the task actually takes, and find out if my speed or estimating skills improve. I’m also skeptical about whether this two-minute campaign will get me through the whole inbox in a few hours. (Calculating: two minutes over two hours equals 60 emails—I’ve got a lot more than 60 to get through.)

As with my paper clutter,  a lot of the clutter in my inbox represents good intentions…not to mention decisions I still need to make and don’t want to. Maybe I need an email folder called Good Intentions! And another one called Decisions! I’m wondering whether a similar approach to the one I’m trying to take with paper (talk about the idea the message represents, blog about it, trust my good sense and life experience so I can let the message go) would work for my electronic clutter.

Anyway—I’m going to experiment and see how long Induction actually takes, what the stumbling blocks are, and whether it’s really worth it to keep my inbox empty. Hurst says to empty it at least once a day, the end of the day being a logical time to do this.

An important thing I want to pay attention to is: when any part of the process takes too long, where am I getting stuck?

Here goes. Tea and chocolate at the ready. I’ll report back.


  1. Kamna Narain says:

    Ah, just the motivation I needed to empty my inbox.

    All your ideas are great, but I must say, the tea and chocolate is the magical piece. I often find that when I combine mundane tasks with some kind of treat the entire event is much more bearable! My otehr strategy is to turn it into a game – so maybe I get a Hershey Kiss for every 15 emails I tackle…

  2. My problem is the “To Read in April” email folder. It hasn’t actually been read since March 2008! I get so proud of myself every time I achieve Inbox Zero that I never actually go and read the to-reads!

    As long as I don’t know what I’m missing, it hasn’t struck me as urgent. But I do feel a pang of guilt every time I put an email in the “To Read in April” folder, knowing that I’m simply expanding its size, without any real plans to read any of its contents.

  3. Good luck with your Induction!

    Personally, I’m okay with near-zero inboxes, as it offers me some weird reassurance that my email is still working. 🙂

    Please let us know how this goes!

  4. Delete, delete, delete!

    Bookmarking the articles that messages link to are perfect for pondering some rainy day or when you are looking for inspiration or a blog topic. Best to delete the original email so that your inbox is emptied. Think of the Internet as your bottomless file cabinet.

    Have you considered giving yourself a 1-minute deadline? That way, if it takes 2-minutes to act on an email, you still can get it all done in a reasonable amount of time.

    Another option is having someone (an executive assistant) do triage on your email for you so that you are facing a smaller amount of emails from the start. All the email gets responded to or acted upon according to the terms you set up with your assistant. But it doesn’t take up your time.

  5. Janet Bailey says:

    @Kamna – An edible reward for every 15 emails cleaned out! I’m adding that to my list of coping strategies.

    @Kelly – Ha, how well I know the phenomenon. Maybe I’ll change the folder name to “Read-contemplate-decide (or not, whatever, no sweat)”

    Also reminds me of that organizing trick where you put the clothes you can’t bring yourself to throw away into a box in the back of the closet. A year later, when you come across the bag and realize you’d forgotten all about the clothes, you can finally take them to Goodwill.

    @Catherine – Thanks, I’ll post about how it’s going!

    @Sharon – Internet as bottomless file cabinet—great image. And the 1-minute deadline is a beautifully simple idea. I’ll try it.

  6. Every day (or so) I move everything I have not deleted from my inbox to another file labeled 2009. It’s a big file, but if I need to find something, I can look for a relevant word electronically and unearth the buried email.

    I use this feature several times a day. It proves useful in unexpected ways.

    However, I could do a more ruthless job of deleted ezines and emailed blogs, knowing that they are preserved elsewhere on the Internet.

  7. Janet Bailey says:

    @Diana – I can see how this would be helpful in keeping the inbox unclogged without having to think about each and every email. If it were me, I’d still need to purge the 2009 file—otherwise the same issues (indecisions, delayed action, re-opening the same emails over and over) would apply, just with less background stress because I wouldn’t be looking at them every day.

    I could see myself using a “2009” file for when I can’t figure out where things should go during the inbox-emptying process. “When in doubt, shovel it into 2009 folder.” Sounds like a good solution for people (possibly me) who find the adjustment from 200-messages-in-the-inbox, to nothing-in-the-inbox, too extreme to maintain—it provides a waystation or middle ground.

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