July 20, 2023

Inbox Zero Or Zeroing Inboxes?

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Inbox Zero Or Zeroing Inboxes?

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Part of our training as GTD® trainers is to help our delegates get to zero and experience firsthand what it is like to have no more backlog. What seemed to me to be the most exciting part of the training often appeared to the delegates to be the most daunting one. “What is all the fuzz with “Inbox 0”? Why waste time when read/unread can do the trick? I’m not stressed by it. Look, this is how I do this…” and down I go the rabbit hole of reasons why inbox zero does not make any sense.

What I wrongfully put off at first as singular cases of change resistance, appeared to be the actual norm of how most people experienced their inboxes.

While lots is going on in those moments, I think I can state with a fair amount of certainty that two interrelated challenges are at play:

First, we are habitual creatures and in all its wisdom, nature has given us a tool to deal with systemic overload (which an overflowing inbox is): going numb. You know the story… A frog thrown in boiling water would jump right out of it. Put the same frog in cold water and increase the temperature slowly and steadily and the frog won’t notice anything. But die, nonetheless. Given enough time, everyone gets used to an overflowing inbox and calls that normal. But stress, nonetheless.  We know this from recurring feedback we get: “I did not know how stressed I was, until the stress was gone.”

Second, we often misinterpret the means for the end. A climber must overcome challenges if he is to get to the mountain top. But tackling every possible challenge he could encounter will drive him only further away from his desired outcome. Similarly, there has indeed been a lot of fuzz about inbox zero, and so I see how easy it is to confuse zeroing inboxes (a practice) with inbox zero (an outcome).

No words I come up with will convince you of anything. I am sure of that. But maybe painting a clear picture of what the mountain top can look like can help you stay focused.

Here is a provoking thought: Having an inbox zero is the tell-tale sign of a decline and nothing to strive for. Getting to zero on a regular basis is a completely different matter.

Zeroing inboxes is the process of emptying all your INs (physical in-tray, emails, WhatsApp, notes, linkedIns, Instagrams…) by clarifying and organizing reminders about what you are going to do (or not do) about each item. It is a process that strives towards one goal: Getting clear and knowing (not hoping) nothing has fallen through the cracks.

“All my INs?” I hear you say… Shall we look at the view from the mountain top?

It liberates space to think in higher and more fine-tuned ways

Emptying all your ins regularly means that you come to a point where you know there is no backlog and everything that needed your immediate attention got your attention. This quiets the chatter in our minds about what remains to be done, the angst and worry that we might have missed something. Having more space, your mind can go do what it was made for. As David Allen famously put it: Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

It reduces distractions

The alternative to emptying your inboxes is to work out of your inboxes. in practice it generally means you have in front of your eyes, quick wins, things you need to think about, things you do not want to think about, reminders that you need to think about the things you don’t want to think about, mixed with things you should have delegated but don’t know yet, because you haven’t fully read it yet, because there was something more urgent that came right after you spotted something you could quickly do that was right next to the thing you could maybe have trashed if only you had had enough time to acknowledge the fact that something is in fact trash. Sound complicated?  Where was I…?

Right, the practice of zeroing INs reduces distractions because it separates clearly the activities of thinking and doing. How often did I think I sent an email only to find out it was stuck in the drafts folder… Sound familiar?

It facilitates working on priorities

Having made clear decisions about every item in your INs generally means you have a collection of next actions. Now when you look at that collection, something wonderful is made possible: Your ability to recognize your priorities is unleashed. I can only prioritize between things that are clear to me. If I must think through emails or texts and simultaneously try to answer the question “what is my priority?” I will overload my mind and there is relatively little I can do but react to what is latest and loudest.

It reduces waste

Because every item needs to be clarified before you can move it somewhere else, the habit of bringing your ins to zero protects you from the habit of “just checking” to reassure yourself that nothing has exploded yet. At some point I learned a statistic from a master trainer. In France, knowledge workers receive on average 50 emails. Each email takes on average 30 seconds to get clarified in a precise next action that needs to be taken (some 1sec – delete, other 3 minutes – three attachments…). And now the killer: each email gets on average pushed 7 times before dealt with. That means instead of taking 30 seconds per email, each email takes 3,5 minutes of your time. 3,5 minutes instead of 30 seconds!! That is close to 3 hours instead of 25min a day lost by repeatedly scanning the same emails.

It makes shutting down a reality

Leaving your office and turning off your laptop is not truly shutting down if your mind is still caught in thinking. As I have ADHD, I have found this to be my personal silver lining. I will never forget the first time I truly got all my ins to zero. The time I knew all my commitments were on track, I was not letting anyone down, including myself. I felt free. I felt peace.

It makes you ready for anything

When everything is under control, everything that comes your way can become an opportunity to express yourself in new ways. More space, more time, more control increases your ability to welcome life as it comes. Sometimes it does not take long that we throw ourselves out of control again; but you know what changed? We now have a path towards greater sense of control, peace, and personal freedom.

To conclude, forget having an inbox 0 but practice zeroing inboxes. Practice regularly emptying all your ins. Your zero today might not be my zero. What is your number at which you can feel for a moment at peace and ease that everything is ok for now? If you feel in control with 100 emails and out of control with 101, then 100 is your current zero. Find that number and in time, get that number to an actual zero.

To be clear, the practice should cover all your inboxes; but here again, start small. Getting to zero regularly with one inbox is, in today’s world, already a major improvement. I know I started with one and only one. With that success in hand, I went and emptied the second, then the third.

Here are the first things I suggest you do:

Get clear about your INs: Anything and everything in, or on, which stuff lands that requires your attention. Period. If stuff lands on your fridge for you, then that is an IN. Ask yourself “What pile of stuff have I gone numb to?”

Choose which INs you’ll want to keep. Keep as many as needed but as little as possible.

Make it a project to “Get every single IN in my life to zero”.

Identify the next action.

Get started!

If it gets overwhelming, or you know you want this but it seems impossible, make sure you reach out to us. We’re here to support you!

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