In Box Processing

Posted on May 18, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Initially, this article was to discuss personal worflow mastery. But after last week’s Mastermind session describing the Weekly Review, I changed my mind. Instead, this article will focus on the seemingly impossible task of how I keep my inbox at zero.

“An inbox at zero,” you say, “preposterous!”

Well, it is possible and I’ve been doing it now for about five years. This article¬† describes how I do it and should help you see why it might be something for you to consider doing this as well.

Because I’ll reference the diagram from Mastering Workflow, I’ve included a copy of that diagram here.

Personal Mastery Workflow

Terms Defined

  • Stuff – (I know, yet another technical term!) I have two in boxes, one is electronic and one is physical with real pieces of paper and sometimes 3-dimensional objects as well. It is important to realize that everything “comes in” to your workflow and you need to have a place for all of this “stuff” to collect.
  • Next Action – this is a critical concept to master, understanding the very next action is about differentiating between a project with several steps that take place over a period of time and a next action which is a discrete activity that can be done at one sitting. For example, buy a car is a project but visit the car dealer to test drive a Honda Fit is a next action.
  • Eliminate – call it trash, delete, recycle, purge or whatever… being aggressive (and honest) in what you eliminate from your personal workflow is an important element toward mastering your inbox. What do you really think is the likelihood you’ll go snowboarding in Tahoe with your old high school buddies… from 30 years ago… okay, maybe it goes on the Someday list.
  • Incubate – are you unsure what to do next? Are you unsure whether you even want to act on that item? Let it incubate. If you allow a place where you can store something – outside of your inbox – where you’ll allow things to sit while your energies are absorbed elsewhere, you will be well on your way toward a zero inbox.
  • Reference – things you will need to refer to – either short term or long term – and do not have an easy way of retrieving from other sources. My rule here is: if I created it I keep it, if someone else created it they keep it (unless I know I’ll need it and don’t trust them to be able to find it.)
  • Project – any set of more than one next action, i.e., most of what we do!
  • Delegate – may include the traditional form of, “give it to a trusted employee” or other more modern variations of shifting responsibility from you to someone else. Often, others have more interest in seeing something done than you do, if this is the case both of you will feel better if they “own” it rather than you!
  • Appointment – again, may include the traditional form of, “having a meeting” in person (face-to-face or f2f) or via teleconference. When this is the case, I recommend keeping your notes and agenda items in the appointment window of the calendar itself, that way you always know where to find your notes when you need them, automatically. Also keep in mind, if something has to be done, even if it is only you who will do it, it will take time to complete. I recommend you schedule an appointment with yourself for completion.
  • Waiting For – some of my biggest worries are when I cannot trust other people to follow-up on a commitment. If someone has made a promise to deliver on a specific date, that commitment can be added to your calendar or to an action list called “Waiting For”. This allows you to free the thought from your head without worrying the task will fall through the cracks.

Inbox at Zero… HOW?

“Wait, didn’t you say you’d help me get and keep my inbox at zero?!”

Consider the nature of your work. Are you in a role where immediate response is required within a certain number of minutes? If you work in a call center, that’s probably the case. In that environment, there is software that automatically adjusts messages to various operators for response. Most of the rest of us, however, have to manage the volume ourselves.

My work allows me to “batch” email. Batching means I allow email to accumulate over a period and then go through it from top to bottom at a single sitting. I even go one step further, I plan time in my day for this batch processing. By dealing with messages first thing in the morning and before I finish for the day, I can usually handle 98% of my work. I’m still responding within one work day or less and I am not constantly facing interruptions to complete the work I’ve committed.

The goal is for my inbox to be zero when I finish the day. I DO NOT handle email as it arrives except in special circumstances. Instead, the inbox is sorted (or triaged) and I work from specific action lists during the rest of the day. In order, my attention rotates through:

  1. Calendar: appointments – these have to be done at a specific time.
  2. Calendar: All Day appointments – these have to be done today, but have no specific time assigned.
  3. Waiting For List – I’m waiting for someone else to respond
  4. To Do List – these tend to be more urgent (since they came in email)
  5. Task List – these tend to be bigger project-related items and things that come into my system from means other than email

[This little list is probably worth another article in and of itself! Stay tuned.]

The Two Minute Rule

Essential to the goal of an empty inbox, is the two minute rule. Simply put, if you can complete something in about two minutes, do it on the spot. If it is going to take longer “put it in your system,” that is delegate or defer it.

By limiting yourself to two minutes you allow yourself to get through even a large inbox quickly. It takes discipline, but it pays in spades! Imagine this scenario, you are cruising through your email and finding a couple of minor bombshells. You are scheduling them into your system and making good headway. Then you find a potential crisis that could cause a three week delay in your project. Immediately, you on it. Three hours later, problem resolved, you get back to your inbox. At the bottom of the list – which is in the middle now because you’ve had another 50 email messages in the past 3 hours – is a message from your boss’ boss (your boss is on vacation) asking you postpone the project until the start of the next quarter. Oops!

Always triage your inbox to zero before starting problem solving.

Maybe It Shouldn’t Be Handled Via eMail?

While email can feel efficient — “I handled 200 email messages today!” — it may not be effective. Consider the type of issue, the relationship you have (or should have) with the other correspondent and the complexity of the issues involved. See this two part article for a detailed description of how The Message Dictates the Media.

One handy rule, if you find a response to a message simply elicits another message, maybe the phone would be a better tool — or, better yet, a visit in person. For me, if I find myself knee deep into my third response to a “simple” question, I generally pick up the phone and deal with the issue by voice rather than in writing. Sometimes, being effective requires using the right tool.

More Information

Click here for a copy of the slides used in a Mastermind Presentation on this topic on 18 MAY 2009.

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