I get several hundred e-mails a day, so I laughed the first time I heard the term "Inbox Zero."
It took me about a week to totally clear out my inbox, but boy did it feel good once I did.
With my inbox clear, I started following blogger Merlin Mann's advice on e-mail management, and I've been able to keep an empty inbox by treating it like a game. Every new e-mail is like a hostile invader that I must deal with right away, which is essentially the gist of Inbox Zero. Stop merely "checking" your e-mail, and start "processing" it.
Processing methods will vary, but Mann suggests having an action you can apply to each new e-mail. His are: delete/archive, delegate, respond, defer and do.
"The thing you don't do is just let it sit around without a reason," Mann said in a 2007 speech about Inbox Zero, which is posted on his Web site. "Because that's when the procrastination starts."
An action could be entering the details of an e-mail invitation to a party on your calendar, setting a reminder and deleting the message. Or taking a few minutes to reply to a colleague's question.
Once your inbox is empty, you don't have to check e-mail as often, and Mann says you could do "e-mail dashes" once every hour, but that may not work for everyone.
Consolidate your personal folders so it only takes a few seconds to decide where to archive a message. If you use Outlook, download the free Xobni plug-in, which has an incredible search function that reduces the need for lots of folders with detailed names.
You may not be able to act on every e-mail right away, but deferring a message so you can act on it later won't do you any good if you don't remember to revisit those deferred items on a regular basis. Otherwise, it's the equivalent of cleaning your room by stuffing everything under the bed or in a closet.
This is where the father of Inbox Zero -- a series of productivity principles known as "Getting Things Done" or "GTD" to geeks -- comes in to play. Getting Things Done was first outlined by
in his 2001 book of the same name.
Just as having e-mails in your inbox that you have not acted on makes it harder to get things done, so too does having things on your mind that you need to accomplish. Regardless if it's a big thing (finishing a major project for work) or a little thing (remembering to buy batteries), Allen says if you keep all of these things on your mind, your mind will remind you about them at inopportune times, making it harder to focus on the task at hand.
So whenever something you have to do pops into your mind, deal with it in a similar fashion to how you process your e-mails. Take that task or goal, figure out what actions are needed to make it happen and write them down in a place that you will remember to look when it's time to act.
This may be a simple to-do list written in a small notebook, or something as advanced as a software program you can access on both your
or BlackBerry and multiple computers.
It's also important to enter the right kinds of tasks on your lists. For instance, "learn to speak Spanish" is not a task for a to-do list. It's a project that's made up of little tasks, such as shop for Spanish books, that you should put on your list.
Remembering to check your task list regularly is the hardest part of GTD, but you can improve your odds of staying on the wagon by using technology, especially if you carry a BlackBerry or iPhone, so you can always access your next action lists. Much of the task manager software you can buy or download is made with GTD in mind, so it allows you to create both projects and tasks and set contexts such as "personal" or "work." (To see a list of GTD services and applications, go to my blog). I've been using EasyTask, which is available as an iPhone application, a desktop program and a Web service.
There is a downside to constantly whipping out your iPhone or notebook to jot down tasks. Your lunch partner may find this behavior rude. My fianc�e suggested I mention this, and I thought it was such a good idea, that of course, I had to enter it into my task list so I didn't forget.