Management Calm down. I’m a professional.

Inbox Reboot

At some point in the last year there was too much email.

I’ve considered myself a competent manager of email and to-dos for much of my career, but the quantity of email that needed my attention exceeded a heretofore unknown ceiling and I began to understand how the smallest parts of my inbox policy could have a large affect on my reputation.

In this piece, I’ll explain the flawed system that worked nicely me for decades, how I detected its failure, and the new system that I’ve built that is currently keeping me sane.

A PRE-EMPTIVE ASIDE TO THE GTD NERDS OUT THERE. Yes, I know David Allen wrote this phenomenal book 12 years ago that would have saved me a lot of pain, but as an engineer I am afflicted with a wonderful disease called “Not Invented Here.” This disease forces me to ignore the helpful advice of others. It requires me to often build my own tool when there are plenty of pre-existing tools already built. You may think this disease is inefficient, but I find it educational. If GTD is your life blood, you will likely find little value in the piece, so go read this amazing Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Decades of Email

My email system has been simple by design. What I discovered over the years is that whenever I added unnecessary complexity to my process, I also tended to create more work than productivity. Years of following this simple design resulted in the following setup:

All mail is contained within my inbox folder. This should set off all sorts of alarms for you. Of course, you have too much email, Rands – it’s all in your inbox. Calm down. I’m a professional. The “every mail in my inbox” policy is accompanied by the following rules and assumptions:

Aggressive pruning of noise via mail rules. To increase the signal of my inbox, I’ve developed a set of mail rules that pull non-essential emails into sub-folders. Noisy mailing lists are a primary culprit. By pruning out the noise, the probability of an email in the inbox being useful is higher. This includes rules like:

Automated highlighting of important emails. With a good chunk of the noise removed from my inbox, important mails tend to have a small handful of similar characteristics, and these characteristics are captured in additional mail rules:

  • Mails from humans I care about.
  • Mails with me and only me in the To: line.
  • Mails with me in the To: or CC: line.

Within whatever email program I’m using, these types of mails are highlighted in some fashion so I can know at-a-glance that they are likely higher in priority.

The last two rules aren’t rules, but assumptions. My traditional inbox strategy made two large assumptions:

Search in mail works. With everything sitting in my inbox, search must work effortlessly. I must be able to remember, “Who said that thing about the thing?” and run a search and reliably find the appropriate email.  

To-dos can be equally tracked in email and a productivity app. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious flaw, but I’ve always worked under the assumption that I can track a follow-up equally well within email (via flags or other tagging mechanism) as well as within my productivity system, which for years was Things until I recently moved to Asana. In general, smaller tasks that lacked subtasks would remain in email, whereas large tasks would land in the productivity system. More on this flawed assumption shortly.

For years this system has worked. You can look at those simple rules and assumptions and easily find structural and systematic flaws. But even with those flaws I’ve had a modicum of success in my career, and this flawed system kept track of important projects, kept me in touch with my teams, and kept me in the know for many years. Your system is likely better, fancier, and more efficient, but I had proof my system worked. Until last year.

The Little Things

First, an important word about priority. I use the following system to prioritize work in my head:

  • P0: Heinous. Must be handled immediately. Top of the list. Major repercussions if not resolved promptly.
  • P1: Important. Needs to be handled soon. Major repercussions if not resolved, but not heinously on fire.
  • P2: Somewhat important. Likely sans deadline. No one foaming at the mouth. Still needs to be finished in a reasonable amount of time. This is the majority of the work in the world.
  • P3: Nice to have. Someone somewhere needs this to be done, but if doesn’t happen, we’re likely ok.

With my rules and assumptions in place, my inbox routine was:

  • When I had time for email,
  • I would read everything that was unread, and,
  • If I could act on it immediately I would (mostly), but,
  • If the next step was too big for the moment, I would either move it to the productivity system or leave it in the inbox for future consideration.

There are three kinds of email:

  1. Useless crap
  2. Information for later use
  3. Actionable in some fashion.

At my historical usual arrival rate of actionable mails per hour, this process works. Checking email every so often, I would use the unread flag as a means of understanding both whether I’d read the mail and where I needed to act on them. Actionable (read: easy) P0s and P1s were crushed. Larger high priority issues were often pushed to the productivity system for longer term tracking. Lower priority issues remained in the inbox for short-term handling. Rinse. Repeat. Mostly everything handled… for years.

At a substantively higher arrival rate of actionable mails, the system fails in both obvious and devious ways:

  • At a high rate of actionable email arrival, this system is unacceptably lossy because the inbox is growing at fast rate. P0 issues and P1 issues were mostly being handled (keyword: mostly – keep reading), but those P2 and P3 issues were dropping at an unacceptable rate. Does this mean I was prioritizing incorrectly? No. It was ok for a few of those P3s to drop and even some P2s, but when the majority of these fell through, the message I sent to the world was: lossy.

  • Search in mail is fine, it’s my brain that sucks. On top of the exploding inbox was the fact that I believed I could keep all of the state and context of my inbox in my head, and if I couldn’t, I’d search. Again, that works at a certain arrival rate, but when the inbox explosion occurred I was no longer really reading all the mails. Which meant I didn’t have context, and more and more often searched my inbox for things I didn’t know. Inefficient.

  • Unread doesn’t mean shit. In a time of inbox explosion, the unread flag doesn’t mean a thing. It’s the smallest piece of useless data. All it says is, You were here at some point and maybe you did something. I really don’t know. I would furiously get through my unread mail, chasing the fake goal of getting to zero unread messages… like it meant something. It doesn’t. Again, inefficiency.

It is the combination of all these unscalable flaws that is the most damning and obvious failure. As it became clear that my tried and true system was no longer working, I worked harder… using the same system. This meant that as the email continued to increase, I searched more – poorly. I started to try different tagging mechanisms. New folder and inbox strategies were adopted, then dropped, and all this thrash did was exacerbate the core problem: lossiness. What was a steady loss of P2s and P3s transformed into the loss of P0 and P1 issues, which leads us to the final rule:

Everyone knows when you drop a P0.

Inbox Close-to-Zero

As a leader, you define your reputation all the time. You’d like to think that you could choose the moments that define your reputation, but you don’t. They are always watching and learning. They are always updating their model regarding who you are and how you lead with each observable action, no matter how large or small.

Your inbox policy is full of observable action. How quickly does he respond? Did she read the whole mail? Who did they CC:? Why does he sign some mails, but not others?

Each micro-transaction I performed in my inbox had the ability to collectively affect my reputation as a leader. Worse was the realization that if P0s could fall through the cracks, how many P1, P2, and P3s did I drop? The answer is a painful “a lot.”

With these two punches to the stomach in mind, I rebooted my inbox during the holidays with these fixes. Some are essential and some are personal, but I believe all are valuable.

  1. Anything more than ten or so emails in your inbox might as well be a bajillion. I now practice inbox Close-to-Zero. As each email arrives, I act if I need to and then I archive and if I can’t act immediately, I determine if I am likely to act today. If the answer is yes, I leave it in my inbox. If the answer is no, it moves to Asana and is then archived.
  2. Stop hoarding. Start archiving For mails where I don’t need to act, I read the whole mail and move it to my archive folder. If I can’t read the whole mail, but need to, it stays in the inbox. Otherwise, the mail is sent to the archive. The goal with both this and the previous rule is to decrease cognitive load. I should be able to look at my inbox and have a good understanding of what is important today. Not yesterday, not a week ago, but today.
  3. Use conversation/threaded view. I’ve turned this feature on and off in my various email clients over the years, mostly because of a perceived performance hit when it’s enabled, but it is now remains permanently on. With my aggressive archiving policy and piles’o’email, the conversation view gracefully brings back all the context I need when I invariable dig into my archive to refresh my memory.
  4. A strict to-do transfer policy. As I alluded to above, the protocol by which a mail becomes a to-do is well defined. Just about everything that can’t be acted on immediately is placed in the to-do system, except for a short list of mail that I’ve planned to handle that day. If those mails exist at the end of the day, they are moved to Asana. No exceptions.

Small Heroic Acts of Efficiency

Your day as a leader is full of very small decisions. Speak up in that meeting? Embrace serendipity and talk to the random person in the hallway? Answer that email? These very small decisions collectively send signal to the company regarding who you are and what you believe. Your team is watching you – always – because you are their leader.

An efficient inbox policy doesn’t make you a good leader. In fact, it’s expected. Whether you like it or not, progress often stalls while they’re waiting for your response. You, as a leader, have the ability to create a huge amount of organizational consternation simply by not getting completely through your inbox efficiently on a daily basis.

As a nerd afflicted with “Not Invented Here” I like to architect and build systems from the ground up because I tell myself that I like to learn, but I’m often simply stubborn. Uh, I could build that. This stubbornness unfortunately often makes me beholden to the things I build because, well, I built them. As a leader, I need to be willing to throw away cherished things that aren’t capable of evolving with me and I need to listen to the helpful advice others so I can better focus on getting shit done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

16 Responses

  1. Great lessons learned. I have a similar system to your new one. I don’t use project management software so my “get to it soon” priority gets tagged as Followup. This means I need to think a bit more or accomplish some other action prior to a response. I try to get to these within 48 hours. My other extra tag is called Review. These are message that I reply to and expect a response back. If all goes well these just pop back up back in my inbox when the response comes back. I can then remove teh tag and archive the message. If that doesn’t happen then I look through the Review folder once a week to see if I need to followup.

    Of course all of this is a work in progress. Thanks for sharing your system. Email overload is upon us.

  2. Matt Smith 8 months ago

    Great article. Would be interested to read at some point how you use Asana.

  3. Cyril 8 months ago

    Inbox Close-to-Zero works well for me. Simple system keeps me sane. I have three folders:

    1. Inbox — I’ll do it or respond today
    2. To-File folder — note or attachment I’ll put where it belongs later
    3. Archive — I might need to look for it it later

    Works on every device.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Many years of painful lessons, and finally I realized that whenever I “believed I could keep all of the state and context of [whatever] in my head”, that belief is usually unfounded. Eventually being bitten by this (and chided by GTD people) enough times convinced me that your brain should be stateless – all state and context should be stored somewhere. Even if you’re capable of keeping it in your head, it’s a suboptimal use of brainpower that could be better used in other ways.

  5. Richard Careaga 8 months ago

    Good on you. My experience with near zero was a lifesaver, along with a zenified gtd of do-delegate-defer-delete. I went further and zero’d all folders. Anything useful in an email went into a CMS. Things that came up again got a fresh look, rather than a recycled email.

  6. My workflow is quite similar. My inbox is my ToDo list, and I get the jitters when I have more than 20 items in my inbox.

    One additional element in your first bullet of your new flow: “If the answer is no, it moves to Asana and is then archived.”

    Often, the sender of the email is expecting me to take action, and I may not need/want/be able to. If I decide I’m not at that moment, I send them a quick response to tell them so they don’t harbor that expectation. And I either tell them I’m not going to do it, or it’s on my list but not immediately.

  7. What happens when the problem isn’t your process, but the fact that there are more P0 & P1 items coming in than you are able to handle?

    Obvious answer: Classify some of them lower. Except that the difference between a P1 and a P2 (and even more so a P3) is not in your mind, it’s in the mind of the sender.

  8. NateLee 8 months ago

    My method includes 1 rule. I find it absolutely glorious. I found that all of my complaints and inability to manage my inbox really came down to one thing (for how my brain works, at least) – my mail became physically dispersed and would break my search. Rule changes would only complicate the formula, and I found myself hitting the max number of rules too often. So:

    : 1 Inbox
    : 1 “Other” folder
    : 1 Rule to send everything to “Other” w/exceptions for:
    – me in To or CC
    – To and From people or groups I must always read (boss, HR, company-wide, etc)
    : Targeted Smart Search folders that I can easily tweak for immediate and ideal results as I join and leave new team, gain and lose responsibilities, etc.
    – Directly to me (maybe my one rule failed for some reason and sent it to Other)
    – Team1 (based on group address, subject line, or wherever else makes sense)
    – Keyword1 (allows me to be group email agnostic and only focus in themes)
    – Person1 (sort of like “following” someone, but don’t need in my inbox)

    The options are endless. :)

  9. Definitely!

    Presently I’m following the: “If it isn’t actionable, archive it,” rule. I do use Things (I’m waiting to see their upcoming release before switching), but I don’t migrate items from my inbox to Things at the end of the day. Recently, I have noticed that I don’t always act on my actionable emails, because I’m following my list in Things too closely.

    I need to find a dedicated time to act on emails.

  10. Ben Richardson 8 months ago

    I use a similar process of converting emails to my task/project management tool, and I’ve found a tool (todoist) that does a great job of making this seamless.

    Here’s a 30 second demo video: http://youtu.be/TfslbgUv4F4

  11. This has been working great for me for a long while – I started out doing this in Outlook, and then distilled it into a simpler, more effective approach for Mail.app:

    http://the.taoofmac.com/space/blog/2013/02/24/2250

    Summarizing:

    – My “Inbox” is actually a search/smart folder
    – I have an “Actionable” smart folder for stuff that needs doing/tracking/replying to
    – I have a “Current” smart folder for easily filing away entire conversation threads
    – MLs go straight to folders

    I also have a “Mentions” smart folder that keeps track of e-mails where I’m mentioned in any way, but that’s mostly for completion. Turns out I don’t need to use it much.

    Oh, and a “Week” smart folder that makes it easy to find anything sent or received over the last 7 days.

    In practice, most stuff that is “actively ongoing” is in either Actionable or Current, and once it’s dealt with it’s filed away (one folder per quarter).

    Junk or noise of any kind are, of course, ruthlessly deleted, but most of it never reaches my inbox.

  12. Brooks Moses 7 months ago

    The inbox-close-to-zero plan has rather revolutionized how I use email, as well. At my last job, my inbox tended to get to a thousand or so regularly, and every so often I would clean out the easier-to-deal-with cruft (usually on a pair of transcontinental flights) and then it would build up again. I spent my last several days at the company sort of heroically beating it back down to zero.

    With my new job, my rule is that if the Gmail inbox gets past what I can see on screen at once (about 30 emails), that’s a P2 issue, and if it’s past a single page (50 emails), that’s P1. I’ve maintained that for 10 months so far.

    The important lesson for me was that anything that scrolls off the first page is effectively lost. If they represent to-do items, those items aren’t in my list, and they don’t show up when I’m figuring out what to do for the day. If they represent things I need to remember, I forget them. Keeping things in the inbox is pointless; the only space that matters is the first few dozen slots in the inbox — and either I can choose what goes there with aggressive archiving, or I can let randomness choose for me. One of these paths leads to a lot more stress for me than the other.

    The other thing that I learned, from digging out of the thousand-odd emails at the end of my past job, is that there’s an awful lot of stuff that doesn’t actually matter. All those things where I don’t have an obligation but I think I might want to follow up later — nope. If there’s an action item, pull it to the to-do list, but otherwise, archive it and work on something important.

  13. Michael G. 7 months ago

    Great post Rands. Saw many of my own problems in what you described.

    Some of your conclusions (in-box to zero, strict to-do transfer policy) are also discussed in a great read which I came across recently – Bit Literacy (www.BitLiteracy.com). It was published in 2007 and is available as a free download from Apple’s iBookstore or in a kindle edition.

    Have you read this? I suspect you would agree with much of the advice on effectively engaging with “the bits” we encounter on a daily basis.

  14. Dave Linsalata 7 months ago

    Helpful post – thank you.

    How do you handle longer emails that require >5 minutes to read and are largely informative? Do you batch them for later processing, ignore, …?

  15. I use exchange for one reason I can get a txt as well as the Email.

    This only works if you make rules

    Base camp or something like it. I force any client to use.

    It makes my life much better.