Google “Diary of a Snow Shoveler” and you will find a humorous ode to those who have to contend with copious amounts of snow where they live. The first diary entry starts in early December, with the author happily recounting the first snowfall of the year, “…the wife and I took our cocktails and sat for hours by the window watching the huge soft flakes drift down from heaven. It looked like a Grandma Moses print. So romantic, we felt like newlyweds again. Oh, how I love snow!” As more and more snow continues to fall over the course of the month, however, the diary entries gradually degenerate into expletive-laced tirades about the seemingly endless precipitation of “the white s**t.”
That is pretty much how I have come to feel about email. AOL’s once signature phrase, “You’ve got mail!” signaled the excitement of receiving a new email message at a time when the technology was fresh and new. Email was cool. Now, it seems like the phrase ought to be, “You’ve got #$&*@ mail!” There is so much of it and there is always more coming in. It never stops and it never will. For better or worse, email is here to stay for the foreseeable future. The world is not going to change, which is why you and I have to.
I was having a terrible time managing my email inbox until I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology (GTD). I read the book for the first time a year ago, and it has been a game changer.
The principle is simple. You must empty your email inbox everyday. Allen says that for every message you essentially have four options…
- Do it. (if the message is actionable, and can be completed in 2 minutes or less)
- Defer it. (if it cannot be done within 2 minutes, then schedule it for a later time that is more suitable)
- Delegate it. (if it is better to give it to someone else)
- Dump it. (do not waste time on junk, or things that are irrelevant)
Trash the junk and archive the rest. That’s it! Now shut down your computer and go home for the day.
When I really started to practice this consistently, I began to notice significant improvements in my overall workflow. I found that I was keeping track of things better than before. I had a renewed sense of control over the daily onslaught of messages, and I felt I could better prioritize what was actionable.
Best of all, going home from work with an empty inbox helps me feel a sense of completion, and I am better able to to leave work at work and be more present to my family when I am with them.
The principle is simple. The daily practice of it, however, does take time to get used to, but once you experience the benefits you will never go back.