Are You Being Bullied By Your Inbox? (Video Podcast) - Next Action Associates

In today’s episode, Todd and Robert discuss how a good system can help alleviate the stress and pressure we are all prone to from the constant flow of input in our lives.

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0:00:05.5 Robert Peake: Welcome everyone to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name’s Robert Peake, and I’m here with Todd Brown.

0:00:12.2 Todd Brown: Hello everyone.

0:00:15.6 RP: Hey Todd. In this podcast series, our goal is to help you to get more of the right things done in your life, yes, but also to create a greater sense of well-being and purpose and direction through something we call The Getting Things Done or GTD methodology. Basically a comprehensive methodology for dealing with all the stuff you’ve gotta do. That also has a huge benefit in terms of your sense of well, of self-worth, of purpose, of meaning and also for many, many people reduces stress while actually increasing their effectiveness, both in life and in work. It sounds like magic maybe, stick around, we’re gonna talk about some of how that actually works, and as we were kicking around topics and ideas, cognisant that October has been Mental Health Awareness Month and that this methodology really does help a lot of people, I’ll just speak for myself, tremendously with well-being and with a sense of balance.

0:01:19.6 RP: We were thinking about some of the ways in which you can feel a bit picked on by the sheer volume of stuff that comes to us in the 21st century and a bit sort of behold into, if you like, some of these sources of input. And in particular, one of the places where that shows up is the good old inbox, whether it’s an email inbox or something more analogous, like your team’s activity stream or whatever it is, where stuff kinda comes in and demands your attention and demands your dealing with it. So we wanna talk a bit about that, about managing and wrangling the inbox and also the dangers or concerns with getting sort of overly fixated with the inbox. So we kinda just came up with the working title of, are you being bullied by your email inbox, and if so, what can you do about that? Todd, any kind of initial thoughts to kick us off in terms of that theme?

0:02:24.1 TB: Yeah, I think… I like the word bullied, ’cause I do think a lot of people do feel bullied by their inbox. And when we think about… So obviously, negative connotations, an experience… You’re not gonna enjoy an experience where you feel like you’re out of control if you’re being bullied. So what does that really translate it to? What exactly is happening if you’re being bullied by your inbox? Maybe we should start by drilling into that, and I think some of the hallmarks of that would be that you have a sense… Well, first off, you have a sense that you don’t have control of the situation. Either the volume of things coming into your inbox or the nature of them maybe, you just get a sense that you are out of control. There’s not a lot you can do so then the control lives with your inbox. You’re being bullied by… You’re a slave in a sense, maybe to your inbox, is another maybe a more dramatic way to put it, so control would be lacking. I think the other thing that would be true for a lot of people, this is a little bit more subtle I think, but is this idea that the inbox, if you think about what most people do with their inboxes.

0:03:36.1 TB: So what kind of interaction do they have with their inboxes? They are… The inbox is absolutely a place where new things arrive, and I read those things that make decisions about my dealings. But for an awful lot of people, the inbox then is not only a place where new things arrive, it’s also a place where they leave as it were an inventory of their work. When I talk to people that are getting ready to get coached or go to seminars, whatever, quite often they’ll say, “Yeah, my email inbox is my task list, in essence, that’s how I decide what to do, is I look through my email inbox.” I think I’ve told this story a few times before in our podcast, but I once did a seminar, many years ago, with somebody who worked for a big social media company, and I asked him what he did at this social media company and he said, “I do email, that’s what I do, all day long every day, that’s what I do.” And somebody like that is probably feeling like he is again, a bit bullied by his inbox. So as I say, lack of control, and then this whole idea of… We would say in GTD, unclean edges.

0:04:45.3 TB: My inbox all of a sudden is not just where new things arrive, but it’s also where things sit until I deal with them. And adding all of that together, it’s maybe not surprising that people feel a bit overwhelmed by what’s going on in their inbox. I don’t know, does any of that resonate with you?

0:05:06.0 RP: Absolutely, yeah, I just see that a lot, and there is a better way. So the methodology, the approach we’ve found involves really getting clear about what’s in there that needs to be dealt with versus not and getting it stated in better ways, ways that you can actually work from rather than constantly rethinking what’s there in the inbox. And so the joke I sometimes make is, we give you years back of your life in scrolling alone, just the act of scrolling through all of these different disparate subject lines, many of which have vague bearing on the actual actionable item, an actual task that you need to take on as a result of that subject line showing up in your world. And I really like the metaphor of bullying because I think… I just love that there’s an increased awareness of it, at least here in the UK, in schools, there are a lot of initiatives saying, “Look, bullying isn’t okay, we really wanna stop that.” In my day and age, it was just par for the course. It was an inherent part in some ways, I think, of growing up, and one of the things you realise is that as a result of that, you can kind of internalise some of that. You can kind of self-bully in a way after that point in time, as a result of the external circumstances.

0:06:32.9 RP: And so I think that’s an interesting point too, because what I see a lot of people doing before they discover that there is a better way is, in a way, not treating their own selves and mind and particularly their future self very kindly because they’re constantly re-hashing and rethinking and flagging and un-flagging and scrolling and multi-tasking as it were with lots of different unclarified inputs, lots of different subject lines, sort of, competing for their energy and attention. And so to me, the way out of that is to respect your future self, to be kind to your future self, to stop the cycle of abuse as it were, right? By finding a better way. And so a lot of people don’t even believe, or buy, have they been in this so long that it’s possible that inbox zero is a fairy tale to them. This idea that you can, in fact, not get through the work of all this stuff, but get through the clarification of what’s in that input stream in a way that means you don’t have to work from the inbox. So, what do you reckon, Todd? Again, we’re kind of thinking in terms of people that are maybe newer to this notion that it’s possible that there is a better way that you can stop the cycle, that you can be kinder to yourself than just forcing yourself to trudge through the inbox more longer and harder.

0:08:09.0 RP: What are some of the entry points, what are some of the ways in which you can start to get out of the trap of inbox fixation?

0:08:18.2 TB: Yeah, I think an interesting starting point for a lot of people that will be compelling will be just understanding how what you’re doing now is not well, so I’m just gonna say suboptimal, which sounds awfully grand, but it’s not much fun, it’s not very efficient, it’s not very effective. Let’s just look that in the eye and be clear about the way that a lot of people are managing their inboxes at the moment, let’s be clear about what the limitations are, and then we’ve been talking, and you’ve been talking quite a lot about that today. So, I think that’s one thing to be clear about, why is it a problem to deal with email the way that most of the people on the planet are dealing with email? And then once you made that… Once you’ve sort of gotten clear on that, I think a couple of entries points: So one thing is… Again, we haven’t really gone into the detail of what we talk about when we talk about clarifying things, but in essence, making decisions about in Gmail, right? So, what is this? What’s the nature of this thing? Have I read it through? Have I understood it, making determination? Is it actionable? And does that matter? What that means is, do I need to do something to move this forward?

0:09:31.6 TB: And if it is actionable, then we have some suggestions about how to deal with that, including very powerfully identifying the next action, right? What’s the very next physical, visible thing I need to do to move this forward in order to move this email forward? Do I need to call someone? Do I need to reply to the email? Do I need to discuss it with the boss the next time they meet with her? What’s the next action? And so going through, and again, without going through all of the processing steps, I think for a lot of people understanding the processing steps, and again, the benefit of the processing thinking is that at the end of it, because we’ve gotten clear about the nature of the thing and what it means to us, we’ve decided, assuming it is something we need to do something about exactly what the next action is, and if we’ve got a good organisational system, we then put that reminder about what needs to be done next in the right place. And what I mean by in the right place is, “I want it in a place in my system where I will see it when it’s helpful to see it.”

0:10:34.9 TB: So if it’s something I need to discuss with the boss, “Well, okay, in my system, do I have a place of where I store things that I need to discuss with the boss the next time that I meet with her?” So, at the end of the day, is that about being organised? Is that what I’ve just talked about, is that the point? Is the point the process? No, the point is, having done all of that, I’ve figured out what it means to me, I’ve determined what’s the reminder I wanna see, and I’ve said, “This is where that reminder should go in my system.” I’ve now finished the thinking about that thing, and I’ve gotten it off my mind as a result, and there’s another bonus, and that bonus is because I’ve decided the next action, I know and where it goes right in my system, I know that that thing will move forward in the most friction-free way possible.

0:11:31.3 TB: So, that’s maybe at a high level, an overview of an awful lot of what we talk about in how to handle it, I mean, applies to email, but it applies really to anything that you’ve captured really making these kinds of decisions. As they say, the benefit of that is not just, “You’re gonna be better organised,” whatever that means, the benefit of that is you’re clear-headed as a result of being less distressed, less distracted rather, you’re probably less stressed and you have the confidence that it’s going to be… You’re going to be getting that thing done in the most effective and efficient way. So that’s, if I’m gonna put together a little bit of a sales pitch for what we recommend, that would strike me as a good entry point. What’s your thinking about that?

0:12:15.5 RP: Yeah, no, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think another kind of part of this to point out is that the inbox is really a subset, a small subset, right? So it is a place where everything hopefully shows up in this one place. But this analogy of fixation, the word fixation, in fact, I think of instrument fixation, which is something that new pilots fall into as a trap where they’re basically looking at the horizon and the altitude and all the gauges and dials, ’cause there are so many gauges and dials and things to be keeping track of down here as you’re flying, that they forget to look out the cockpit window and up and get the actual situational awareness of where the real clouds and flocks of birds and other planes and everything else are that are not necessarily represented in this complex instrument panel.

0:13:09.0 RP: So, the fixation part of that is that you are looking at a subset rather than having the fuller picture. So I think it’s worth pointing out, actually not to steal your thunder, but you’re someone who often, as I’ve heard this story from you in the past, that in seminars you’ve had people do a mind sweep around whether their key projects, for example, the key things that are moving around in their world and then look at that in relation to their email inbox, and there’s not… It’s not a one-to-one match, not everything that’s going on in their world has a crude representation with an email subject line showing up in the inbox as a line item. So that’s very, very simple example. And the guy who said I do email for a living, it’s a funny quip, but I wonder, does he ever go to a meeting or have a conversation with anyone ever? ‘Cause I know a huge amount gets generated out of meetings.

0:14:06.5 RP: And then people do this thing where they follow up from the meeting with an email because they wanna at least put a crude place holder in the one place people look, which is their inbox about some of the stuff that happened in the meeting so that they have a fighting chance of it happening. But then you’ve got your inbox, you’ve got your meeting notes, you’ve got potentially, if you’re even doing it, externalised notes and thoughts to self about what you might want or need to do, all of these things live in different formats, different physical places. Then you’ve got all the other streams, the info streams of Teams and Slacks and whatever, informal conversations, other forms of synchronous and asynchronous inputs beyond just whatever the one kind of inbox is.

0:14:52.8 RP: And suddenly, you’re just running around to a lot of different places to figure out what it is you need to do. So when you talk about identifying next actions, that’s to me the kind of common denominator underneath all of these things. Some of this stuff that pause up in inbox isn’t actionable at all, and the stuff that is, the next action is gonna be the same, whether it showed up in a meeting notes or in an email message or someone pinging you on Slack or anywhere else so that you can represent it one time in a good way, in a single place rather than having it represented poorly in lots of different places, either with potential duplication or even worse, omission, if you’re just hyper-focused on this… On the good old inbox. So I’m curious what you see when you do work with clients, how you do support them with the multiplicity of inputs and getting some of that bigger picture. You mentioned, again, I love that example of, what’s on your mind, what’s in your inbox? Did you notice there’s not a one-to-one correlation there? Are there more of those kinds of experiences or client experiences that… Again, would help people listening in understanding not only the importance of having something better than just an inbox to work out of, but how they might start to get there, even if they’re not a GTD Black Belt. How do we get people on the road to one place with clear actions?

0:16:30.9 TB: Yeah, it’s funny. And so I wanna come back to a point… I’ll come back to the multi-inbox question ’cause I do have some thoughts about that that I think would be helpful to share, but one other thing, I just wanna come back to your target… You didn’t call it target fixation, you called it instrument fixation, but many, many years ago now, I learned… I got my motorbike license here in the UK, and one of the things that they talked about in the training that I went through was target fixation, and this is the… What goes on in your head if you realise that you are at risk of hitting something, what our brains, very illogically start to do is to focus on the one thing that you don’t wanna do, which is hit the thing. So in other words, your focus goes to the thing that you might hit. And so they talked about the importance of focusing quite reasonably on the thing that you want to do, which is to avoid the thing that you’re about to hit, so you don’t focus on the target. Or sorry, the target that you choose is not the thing that you’re just about to run into, the target that you choose is the road way that’ll get you around it, for example.

0:17:36.7 TB: And I was thinking about that again in terms of GTD, and I think there is… It’s one of the other things that we talk about a lot is the importance of identifying outcomes, desirable outcomes as we say. What do you want done to look like? So don’t fixate on the wrong things, and I was thinking about this in context of what you were talking about, as you were describing it, I almost have this image of you’re in front of your inbox, and it’s almost as though somebody is holding your head down and saying, “Okay, you need to stay focused on this, you can’t do this. You can’t look up and look around and get more perspective. Okay, you’ve gotta stay focused, you gotta stay focused on what’s on the screen.” And I think there is an awful lot of value in keeping that in mind, the value of… I just had this experience this week where I realised… I think it was Monday or Tuesday, I realised I was just way too deep in my inbox, I had been spending too much time at the keyboard, I had been… Just way too much, and I just went downstairs, took some blank paper, and I just stood at a counter in the kitchen and just worked there for a while, and it was so free, just getting out of the…

0:18:45.4 TB: Quite frankly, getting out of the seat, getting away from the keyboard, getting away from the screen. I came up with some… It turned out to be some really creative ideas about a problem that I was struggling with. So all that to one side, I think the other thing I would say about multi-inbox is how do we get people to the point where they’re making better decisions about the things that they’ve captured. I think first thing is be clear about what a capture location is. What’s a capture location? It’s a place in your system where new things are arriving, that is that you haven’t seen before, and they are intended for you, addressed to you just generally speaking. Now, they may be addressed to you, if it’s an email because you’re in the CC line or you’re in the to-line, if you’re in Teams, Microsoft Teams, then it might just be because you’re a member of a particular team, and that’s why you’re seeing a reminder, but it’s intended for you. And I think getting clear about what your capture locations are in your world, and as we talk about a lot, consolidating those as far as possible to have as few capture locations as you can get away with, I think that’s really important.

0:19:58.7 TB: And then realise that the things that are in those capture locations, which are not new, they’re not things which are… There might be things you haven’t yet thought through, okay, but they are outside of the scope of capture now. And so what you need to do then is do a bit of a clarifying, making some decisions about those things and then put them where they need to go. So it’s a little bit of a refund of how I think we get people to better capture in clarifying hygiene. So first lets just be clear about where your capture locations are, and then trying to make sure that, as we say, “Your system has clean edges,” that is your capture locations are really just used for capturing and they’re not used for other kinds of reminding.

0:20:48.2 RP: That’s such an important point. Yeah, no, I absolutely agree that working from the somewhat unclarified land of email is, well, as I saw you kind of going in and doing the exercise, a pain in the neck, literally. To kinda hunker down, and it just makes me realise that there is kind of a different mode when you start to get into the GTD methodology, a different relationship to the inbox, one that’s a little… Can be slightly more philosophical and detached. So I used to work and had a colleague who was a chiropractor, in the UK we’d call them an osteopath, it’s the nearest equivalent, and he walked by my office and he’d see me hunkered over really straining, leaning in straining into something, working hard. If I just got closer to the screen, maybe I’d do a better job, and he’d casually walk by and he’d say, “Don’t fall in.” [chuckle] I was inches from diving into the matrix or the screen or whatever, but there is, I think, a different relationship to the inbox when you get that it’s not the place you have to work from. It’s not the place you have to lean into or even fall into, because there is signal and there is noise in there. And when you get into a mode where you’re going, right, I’m looking for the signal and then I’m just taking that signal and stating in a good way that’s gonna work for me to be able to work from it.

0:22:22.5 RP: And then I’m moving that email along and then I’m dealing with the next email and I’m looking for the signal and I’m mining out that bit go, you’re just panning for gold, if you like, throughout the inbox, letting the silt go away. Rather than, again, this thing of constantly reopening that one message and creating, it’s almost like the more you open it up, the more you add a little bit of psychological angst to it sometimes, right? So that you just open and close and open and close, and open and close this thing so many times. When what we say, what we teach is an approach where you really can open it once, somewhat dispassionately, just sort of scan it for what’s actionable think about that, put it in a good place, and you don’t have to add so much energy and intensity, you know?

0:23:08.7 RP: That I see people so often add to the inbox, it becomes a really loaded place, it becomes a place where you do feel bullied or a slave to the inbox. So just at a high level, I think if that sounds appealing, that more, not detached in a bad way that you don’t care, but more of an easy mechanical process to getting through what’s there, getting out what’s yours and separating that from what’s not yours, and then getting those nuggets of gold refined in a way that you can really work with them effectively. Then GTD maybe, maybe for you, it may be something worth considering worth looking into further, because that part alone just of getting out from the inbox has given so many people relief and hope in this sense of like, “Wow, I can do my job again and feel happy about it.”

0:24:09.4 RP: “The invisible chain to my email inbox has been broken.” Right so, I recognise we’re kinda coming near to time. I’m curious, parting thoughts on all of this, what you think maybe we should iterate, reiterate or emphasise to folks who are feeling bullied by their inbox who are tuning into this for the simple reason that they’re looking for some relief.

0:24:35.5 TB: Yeah, I think I’d say a couple of things about that. One is that, given what we’ve been talking about today is a different approach to handling email, it’s foreign for a lot of people, and we’ve been talking a lot about the benefits of working in those ways. I guess what I would add on top of all of that, is that if you feel like you’ve learned something about the methodology about what we suggest, and you still have 12,000 emails in your inbox, right? We have some suggestions about how you can deal with backlog and deal with that kind of volume. Don’t treat yourself as though you have… That you failed and you need to give up. I think sometimes we run the risk of sort of giving across this idea that, “Well, if you got more than 50 emails in your inbox or you might as well just give up and go try something else.” I’ve told, I think in the past, the story of my own journey in this, which was for about a year after I started to implement some of the basic principles to today, I had 12,000 emails in my inbox that was just the reality.

0:25:40.8 TB: So again, we’re all on a journey with this material and don’t get terribly frustrated if it feels like the problem is not solving itself immediately, but all that said, applying the kind of thinking that we’re talking about to any subset of the emails in your inbox will help to clear your head, help you to be clear about what needs to happen next, help you to trust your priority choices better, there’s lots to like, lots to like, and at the end of that process, you can’t get out of the business. And I love this, I’ve written it down, Robert, I loved your phrase, self-bullying, you can get out of the business of self-bullying. That will be my quick summary. What do you reckon?

0:26:18.6 RP: I think that’s great and such an important point to not use this information, that there may be a better way to self-bully yourself right now. Email happens and it just keeps happening, and if you’re in a place where you feel really at the mercy of it right now, as you say, applying any amount of this thinking is gonna start to help you and hopefully start helping you to realise that email isn’t the only place that you do have commitments that sometimes are crudely represented by emails and sometimes represented by other things, and that as you start to get a hold of those and start to work from places where you can keep an inventory of those commitments more effectively. Any amount of doing that, any amount of investment in that is bringing you further along in what we call the GTD methodology, but really, you could just call being kind to your future self. Being the advocate, being the one that stands up for you and says, “Wait a minute, just… There’s gotta be a better way here.” Watch your posture, watch how you’re doing what you’re doing. If you’re starting to really feel like you’re grinding away, consider there may be a better approach.

0:27:33.8 RP: So as we’re coming to time here, just a reminder that there is a better way, and we have the privilege here in the UK and Ireland of teaching, the Getting Things Done methodology, so if any of this was interesting to you, we regularly put out thoughts and information about how you can apply parts of the methodology, how it can benefit you and support you. We have an ever-growing base of subscribers in the podcast and on YouTube, and if you found this useful and wanna be one of those, click subscribe, if you hit the little bell on YouTube, you’ll also get notified when new ones of these come out. Our podcast comes out about once a month, you can also sign up for the newsletter at, and you’ll get not only this podcast, but other weekly videos and written articles from our experts.

0:28:24.9 RP: For now, from me, from Todd, my hope is that you can take a little bit of this information, at least as hope, if not as some practical support and encouragement to break the cycle of abuse between you and your inbox to make it a functional healthy relationship as much as possible, so you can get more done with less stress. Until then, good luck. See you next time.


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