I have a long history of keeping an empty email inbox. More than a decade. Not because I don’t get lots of email. I do. And, I send lots, too. That’s how I stay connected around the world, and it’s part of my daily job.
By lots, I mean a few hundred directly to me each day (not CC, not part of distributions, etc., directly to me with actions required)
So clearing my mail is a daily chore, but it’s not a daily win.
At one point it was.
Long ago, one of my early managers said that I need to stay on top of my email. I was getting hundreds per day and they all required some sort of action or response. It was insane. To me, it was a huge time sink.
My manager made it clear that I needed to process all my mail, but there’s way more to the job than just that. I said, that if it doesn’t count, then I don’t want to do it. He said it was non-optional.
So, that day, I decided I would spend no longer than 30 minutes a day on email (what I considered administrative overhead.)
It was a bold goal. Sure, I was a fast typer, and a fast reader, but the daily onslaught of overwhelming amounts of mail was insane.
But, like with anything in life, there’s always a solution. If you know where to look.
So I cast a wide net and basically found the people across the company who were the most amazing for dealing with information overload and for always being on top of their email. And, I found quiet heroes as well as very visible rock stars in the email management arena.
And, I studied them.
I modeled from their email practices and email management ways.
That’s how I formed the early version of my Zen of Zero Email.
Surprisingly, a lot of the strategies and tactics came down to doing exactly the opposite of what other people did. In fact, my most surprising lesson was the one I learned the hard way, when I reached the limit on Outlook’s number of inbox rules. I forget what the number was at the time, but it was a lot. Since I couldn’t add any more rules, I had to change my entire approach. That day, I went from a crazy set of rules, down to exactly one inbox rule.
Surprisingly, years later, it’s still just the one inbox rule.
And, still, I hit zero email in my inboxes on a daily basis.
This way, I’m never paper shuffling. I don’t lose actions or reminder among a sea of email.
Basically, I transformed my approach for email long ago, after a lot of pain, and a lot of trail and error, and by studying the best of the best in action, in the most extreme scenarios.
Here’s why I tell you this …
“Clear my email” is something I do daily, but it’s “below the line.” For me, it’s not a win anymore. It used to be. But now, it’s well below the line … it’s just expected, and it’s just something I do.
It’s below the line, and if it takes me more than 15-30 minutes daily, it’s actually a flag for me that I’m spending too much time.
Rather than focus my day on how to react or deal with email, I can just always systematically clear my inbox and be done. I get back to everybody. Sometimes, it’s as simple as acknowledging I got it, and a note that I’ll respond more deeply later. But staying on top of my email means that I have a very simple stream of potential action and insights.
But the big deal is that it’s a “below the line” activity.
It’s not my high value activity.
So I spend as little time as possible in it, yet get the most benefit that I can.
That said, a decade ago, that very much would have been a win for me.
It probably would have been one of my Three Wins for the Day for a while.
But that’s the point.
The goal isn’t to focus on things to do forever.
It’s to transform them so that you can do them better, faster, cheaper — or eliminate them entirely.
And, spend more time where it counts.
It’s how you move up the stack.
This is a long-winded way of saying, “Clear My Email” is no longer a win for me.
It’s a highly effective habit that helps me spend more time in my higher value activities.
And for that, I’m actually grateful.
I don’t know that I made all the points that I wanted to, and I wandered a bit, but I thought the little story of transformation might be useful for you, and might help you think about how you pick off your Three Wins for the day (if you’re doing Agile Results.)
It’s also a reminder for me how easy it is to take for granted and actually forget how difficult things were at one point, and how a few proven practices can be transformational, and how they can pay back daily.
And, every now and then, instead of writing a 20 minute post, I like to write a 5 minute one.