How to take control of your Inbox

by andrewodom on October 22, 2010


Originally written for my weekly Thursday post on scissorsanddrumsticks.com.

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Jim Rohn, the celebrated speaker and motivator, once said, “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” A great quote from someone who earns his living speaking to others about how to take control of life. So what runs your day?

For many of us our days are run by our email inbox. We start our days checking our email. We keep it open all day toggling between our work and our inbox. Some of us live for the ‘ping’ that happens each time a new mail flies in. And who isn’t guilty of just doing a “quick email check” before heading out the door or going to bed or having supper?

I admit it. Email is all at once the tin-can communicator that keeps me connected AND the very bane of my existence.

What I propose is not going to sit well with many for many of us still can’t admit that our work is actually hindered by our inbox. I propose that we choose to live life on purpose and determine for ourselves how the day is run. I propose we quit allowing our inbox to determine what comes out of us. I fully understand the value in a quick response. But offering this service every minute of every day is detrimental in that you are training your clients, your colleagues, and even your friends to count on you 24/7 without so much as thinking you may have a life away from the inbox. I ask, is it more important to respond to an email within 45 seconds or to do meaningful work? How then can you do meaningful work if you are, in fact, handcuffed to the letter carrier of Mac Mail or Outlook Express? I propose that we no longer give off the vibe that we are literally waiting at our computer to answer email as it comes in. That is just a distraction to the real work we are supposedly called to do.  I believe there is no such thing as a true multi-tasker as that would mean you are able to give 100% to more than one task at a time. Impossible! You only have 100% to give.

Think about this, because of TXTing, email, Twitter, chat, etc. we are actually becoming more bogged down and, in effect, slower, because we cannot find a way to give 100% of ourselves to anything. And this seeps right into life itself. Raise your hand if you are guilty of checking your work email over the weekend. Raise your hand if you have quick-draw McGraw’d to your hip when you hear that email chime on your phone.

There will always be someone or something demanding your attention, and you have to decide how to give it to them in a way that works best for you. I understand. Hey, we’re all busy. We all have lots of things to do. But stopping to check you inbox every 3 or 4 minutes is only adding to your inability to get anything done! I challenge you today to turn the email off. Only check it when your workday starts, when you return from lunch, and before your workday is over. And even on those occasions limit yourself to 45 minutes. I promise you will see the effect the inbox truly has on your workflow.

I am not the only minimalist that has spoken about email and our addiction to the inbox.

  • Leo from Zen Habits: “I got this idea from Mike Davidson, whose article came at a perfect time as I was limiting other things in my life, and was also trying to keep my emails short at that time. His 5-sentence rule (no email can be longer than 5 sentences) fit in perfectly with everything else I tried to do, and I’ve adopted it. It forces you to write only what’s essential.”
  • Everett Bogue from Far Beyond the Stars: “Eight hours of receiving and reacting to email will similarly not get important work done. When you batch respond to email during fifteen minute intervals once a day, you get less email and also have many empty hours in the day. Empty hours are uncomfortable, and I’m convinced that most of us are terrified of them. This is why we spend all day hitting refresh buttons waiting to react to messages that don’t matter. This is why we fill up our schedules with meaningless meetings which ask questions that we already know the answers to.”

I specifically remember reading those statements when they posted them. I even remember promising myself that I would change my email habits. And I remember the pain I felt when I missed an email and was called out because of it. Come to find out the colleague didn’t actually think I might be doing something else at 10pm on a Sunday night. Hello. Anyone heard of sleeping?

Living a minimal life is all about being in control of your surroundings and your actions; not being subject to passing fads and mental whims. So as I challenge us all to break our inbox habits I also send out this very special plea. For the love of all things good and gravy, STOP checking your email when on a date, when having a meal with your family, when in the car (especially with passengers), while at a place of worship, or on vacation. NOTHING is that important.

I leave you this week with this. Do you want to spend your day bound to the inbox or do you want to create good, solid, work that is a representative of 100% of your efforts? Do you want to enjoy life at all times? How much do you check your email? How often do you think you can cut that down to?

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