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Empty Inbox, Clear Mind

I began my career with a company that strictly enforced a clean desk policy. You got in trouble if there was anything on your desk after you left each night. There were various tactics to avoid getting written up. You could take care of each piece of open business each day. You could develop a sophisticated filing system. You could scoop up the mess, put it in a drawer, then pull it out again in the morning. But no matter what you did, you had to do something.

I credit that policy for turning a chronically disorganized young man into a sleek, efficient productivity machine. I’ve tested often over the intervening two decades, and always concluded I was more productive when I followed some kind of clean desk policy. Especially regarding email.

Is it possible to clear your email inbox daily? If so, is it helpful? The answers are yes and yes.

The hard part is getting started. First, you need to make a firm commitment to setting some rules and following them strictly for a month, or however long you think is necessary for you to draw conclusions on the value. Website offers tips on how to create a fresh start for your inbox. One method:

  • Open your email program and create a new folder called “DMZ”
  • Go to your email inbox and Select All 
  • Drag those emails from your inbox into the DMZ folder
  • Go, and sin no more.
  • So now you have a huge DMZ file of unread emails, and an empty inbox. Now what?

    Now you need to organize your life. Leave your workstation. Sit in a sunny place with a latte, pad, and pen. List all your responsibilities. Mind map your life. Don’t forget things like “family chef” or “exec committee member” or “innovator” or “blogger” or “personal wellness.” Next, consolidate. Can some of your responsibilities be melded into an uber-category? Can some responsibilities be nested as subsets of others in the grand hierarchy of your life? Get it down to a manageable set.

    Then finish your latte, go back to your workstation, and replicate your list as email folders. I know organized managers who have hundreds of such files, and others who have five. Me, I’ve managed a billion dollar business from about a dozen top-level folders, each with as many sub- and sub-sub folders as necessary. Make it manageable, and do it now.

    Now, over the next week or two, work through that massive DMZ folder and start filing. Touch each email only once if possible. Delete most. Respond or forward the rest, then drag them to the appropriate folder. I confess to having a To Read file where I drop low priority emails that I can’t bring myself to delete but don’t want to deal with yet. I clear that file weekly.

    By now, your once-empty inbox is loaded with new emails. Before you leave tonight, deal with them. All of them. Delete, respond, or forward, then file. Voila: Empty inbox at end of day.

    Many people tell me they don’t file because they can’t remember where they filed. Cheap excuse. With modern desktop search engines, nothing can be lost for long, and the more you work with your new filing system, the more reliable it becomes. Some email systems like gmail even allow you to file the same item in multiple folders via labels. And get this: it’s pretty easy to evolve your folder system if it isn’t optimal. Or if you get new responsibilities from being so darn productive.

    Sound like a lot of work? It is. At first. Then one day you look back on your week and marvel at how much got done and how little got procrastinated. You then move on to phase two. You clean your physical desk. You dust your office. You find you are better without clutter. You become a local legend. Your career skyrockets. You experience bliss on a regular basis and have more time for lattes in sunny places.

    Start now.

    What’s your favorite technique for boosting personal productivity?

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    4 Responses to “Empty Inbox, Clear Mind”

    1. Bing Chou says:

      The zero inbox is definitely a great thing. I feel like it’s similar to exercising – fall out of the habit, and it’s tough to recover.

      After several years of experimentation, I’ve got my e-mail dialed in with ~6 folders per account. Unfortunately, the number of accounts I have has ballooned, so the next step may be to use Smart Mailboxes and such to better coordinate between accounts.

      I’ve also implemented some but not all of the Getting Things Done system by David Allen, which helped me structure my e-mail process.

      Can’t wait to see my career take off.

    2. Mark P. Friedman says:

      I hear ya, Bing! It’s a constant challenge. Sounds like you’re pretty much on top of it – good job!

      And you’re right – once you slip, it’s like forcing yourself to go to the gym, knowing how sore you’ll be the next day. Moral: don’t slip!

    3. Jennifer E. says:

      Love the DMZ idea (as well as your sense of humor) – gives you the immediate advantage of starting with a clean slate… Thanks for sharing with us!

      • mpfriedman says:

        Thanks, Jennifer. I’ve learned from your posts on inbox management, so it means a lot to have you comment here.

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