Regain your freedom

 

FIVE STEPS TO INBOX ZERO
How do you feel at the end of the day, empty? grumpy? fulfilled? 
The degree of  creative output for the day may vary on the intensity of your focus and the discipline to keep focused. If you get 5 calls and 70-120 emails during the day, is it possible to keep focused and end the day with a sense of fulfillment?

FROM KNOWLEDGE WORKER TO KNOWLEDGE CREATOR
I am known for asking myself and clients "What do you manufacture?" as if we were producing  something out of raw material. And in fact this is the fundamental cybernetic of everyday productivity: transforming raw material (data) into something tangible (information) in form of a draft, a concept, an article, a look-prototype, a feel-prototype, a model, a product or a service. 

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SCHEDULE EMAIL TIME INTO YOUR DAY
Even though your inbox has hundreds and thousands of unread emails, I'd bet you check your account daily, if not hourly. So why does it get out of control so fast?
My guess is you don't actively check it. You probably refresh it, scroll down to see who sent what, and then close out before opening or really reading anything.
Let's change that habit - start scheduling in your calender two slots of 18 minutes each for mails. Make it a priority like any other task. And after a while, you'll be able to open, read, delete, file, and mark every kind of email you receive in one batch of 18 minutes per day.

I made a decision years ago that email would never dominate my working life. I highly recommend you do the same. I spend on average 19 minutes per day on email, which is 7% of my total work time. The average information worker, in contrast, spends 28% of his or her time reading, writing, and responding to email — nearly four times as much.
This is the process I use, feel free to use it. 

PREPARATION - SET UP FOR INBOX ZERO
The key to Inbox Zero is to “touch each email only once.” But that only works if that “one touch” sends emails somewhere they will be acted on at the appropriate time.
Most people do not appreciate that this level of simplicity is the ultimate sophistication — only a well-designed underlying system can make such elegant action possible.
The secret to Inbox Zero is having reliable downstream systems. Every conceivable email you receive can be handled by just four purpose-built productivity apps:

  • A digital calendar (I use Google Calender and Fantastical2)
  • A task manager (I use todoist which works fine on PC and Mac, since I coach many people who use a PC. A great Mac-only task manager is also Things)
  • A read later app (I use Instapaper)
  • A reference app (I use Evernote)

THE TRIAGE PROCESS - SHORT
In my 19 Minutes of email processing I get through every email, opening it only once and deciding:

  • I commit to do it at a specific date and time > schedule in calender
  • I commit to do it, without specific date and time > send to task manager
  • I do not commit to do it, but it sounds interesting > send to read later app
  • I do not commit to do it > send to archive or delete
  • I immediatly reply and archive the email

THE TRIAGE PROCESS - LONG

Digital calendar
This is by far the most commonly used productivity app. Any time- or date-specific event, commitment, appointment, or decision goes on the calendar. Making it digital allows you to view your calendar at different time horizons, sync automatically between devices, and send people “invites” so events appear on their calendars as well.
The nearly universal standard is Google Calendar, which provides all the functionality you need for free.

Task manager
The second most commonly used productivity app is a task manager, which is like a digital to do list. There are many options out there, but my top recommendations are Things (if you use a Mac) or Todoist (if you’re on a PC). They both have mobile versions, sync across devices, and are well-designed. Most importantly, they both offer the crucial feature when it comes to Inbox Zero: the ability to capture and link back to email-based tasks. As you can see in the examples below, this allows you to identify what you want to do about an email and remove it from your inbox, while preserving a link that takes you back to that email no matter where it is. This is a screenshot of how I use Todoist. 

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This small feature is the lynchpin not only of your task manager, but of the entire Inbox Zero system. Because the whole system hinges on your ability to pull to do’s out of a messy, distracting inbox and into their own dedicated tool. You’ll only trust such a tool if it can instantly and reliably point you back to the original email when it’s time to take action, whether that’s in two hours or two years.

Read later app
This is the third most commonly used productivity app, and it’s quite easy to use. Read later apps allow you to save online content (web pages, articles, blog posts, videos) for later reading or watching. Popular options include Instapaper (which I use) and Pocket.

When it comes to Inbox Zero, the most important feature is the ability to quickly save content to your read later app. Instapaper provides a designated email address you can simply forward emails to, or alternatively, a Chrome extension. Just open the link, click the button in your browser, and you can delete the email knowing that content is saved.

Reference app
This is the least used, but in my opinion, one of the most powerful, categories of productivity apps. Reference apps are often called “digital note-taking apps,” but in fact they can store any type of content: documents, photos, drawings, diagrams, voice memos, screenshots, etc. My top recommendation is Evernote, but other popular options include OneNote, Simplenote, Bear, Google Keep, Zoho Notebook, Dropbox Paper, Notability, and Apple Notes.

PARA_evernote.jpg

ost people just dump photos, screenshots, and other miscellaneous files into their computer’s file system or a cloud storage service such as Dropbox. Some leave it floating somewhere in their email archives. But over the long term, this content is some of the most valuable work you will produce. It contains your ideas, your learnings, your insights, and your creative breakthroughs. I believe capturing and saving this material is the key to making the transition from a “knowledge worker” to a “knowledge creator”. It is the difference between working a job and creating intellectual capital that gains scalable value over time. I use the incredibly powerful PARA method to organize all my information hubs (Evernote, Google Drive, Todoist).

The habit of Inbox Zero
I’ve talked a lot about systems, but when it comes down to doing it every day, Inbox Zero is a habit. It is the habit of processing your emails according to a well-defined method, instead of reacting to them in a state of hurry.
This is the problem of many  “Inbox Zero crash courses" which brag about helping people “clear out 5,000 emails in a weekend!” but ignore the day-to-day underlying habits, as if that state of affairs will maintain itself automatically.
This method is very simple: start with the oldest email in your inbox, make a decisive decision about what you will do about it, without doing it right now, just immediately triage it: send that email to the appropriate place where it will be dealt with at the right time. 

In my 19 Minutes I do only one of this 5 things:
- I commit to do it at a specific date and time > schedule in calender
- I commit to do it, without specific date and time > send to task manager
- I do not commit to do it, but it sounds interesting > send to read later app
- I do not commit to do it > send to archive or delete
- I reply immediately and archive the email

What Inbox Zero can do for you
A common response I hear when teaching people how to set up productivity apps is, “I don’t think all this small stuff matters.” This rings true: is it really the random online article, YouTube video, or email newsletter that will make the difference in your career?

It’s not, but this is exactly why you want a system to handle them for you in the first place.
By making all these little decisions more consistent and methodical, you are lowering your reactivity and training your prioritization muscles. You are following a method that can be slowly refined over time, instead of treating every incoming thing like an emergency. Lowering your reactivity is an important end in itself, because anything that forces you to react, ultimately controls you.

I made a decision years ago that email would never dominate my working life. I highly recommend you do the same.

SUMMARY - FIVE STEPS TO INBOX ZERO
In your focused email time do only one of this 5 things:
- I commit to do it at a specific date and time > schedule in calender
- I commit to do it, without specific date and time > send to task manager
- I do not commit to do it, but it sounds interesting > send to read later app
- I do not commit to do it > send to archive or delete
- I reply immediately and archive the email

Then close the email program and create something without interruption until
it is done, or at least a part of it.

...Now I am curious - How do you feel at the end of the day?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Slightly addicted to create time for what matters. Never hurrying, always sprinting. In love with productive heretics and successful outliers. Simon Severino works as executive advisor on strategy and productivity. When not swimming or running with his family, he is devoted to create practical exercises to sharpen your productivity and market strategy. Founder of strategy sprints, host of the strategy show and curator of the strategy forum. F500 companies bring their main productivity and strategy problems, the strategy sprinters build the space to solve them on the fast lane.