How to manage your email: or, A tiny skill that some people claim doesn’t exist

February 14, 2013 By Mark Hurst 4 Comments

I thought you might like to learn an easy little skill that most of the world doesn’t even know exists. First, the context. I recently spotted three articles – in the New Yorker (here), the Atlantic (here), and the New York Times (here) revealing what you might call the “email confessional.” This type of article has been written for several years now, so you may be familiar with it. You know, “we’re overwhelmed with email, it’s impossible to tame, and alas, there will never be a solution.”

Since publishing Bit Literacy almost six years ago (it’s now a free ebook on the Kindle store and iBookstore), it’s been interesting to see these stories pop up every month or two – always with the same conclusion: there’s no solution, and we’re forever doomed to be stressed and overwhelmed by email. Occasionally the articles will mention, in passing, another option that they don’t think will work, such as…

• a widely-reported-on productivity theory, such as “Getting Things Done.” The writer then concludes that the system is too complicated for most people to practice (which is a common response – I’ve met many people who tried that method and gave it up, because of its complexity, and almost no one who claims to actually have managed to practice it).

• a trendy quick-fix like “email bankruptcy,” the process wherein famous and highly sought-after journalists and luminaries delete all of their emails and then email their colleagues, “I’m far too busy to read your first note, so send me another one.” At this point the writer notes the obvious flaw that most people aren’t able to delete all their email and stay employed.

That leads me to the “easy little skill” for today’s newsletter: a quick three-step process that will permanently solve email overload. It’s also the method described in Bit Literacy, which my team at Creative Good and I have been practicing for over 15 years. It’s simple to learn, takes a few minutes to practice each day, and doesn’t require special software, a particular email platform, or a long description of rules and regulations to adhere to.

Here it is, in three sentences.

Step 1. Move all your action items out of the inbox, and onto a todo list. (The inbox was never designed to manage todos, which need dates, priority ranking, categories, and the ability to edit the text inside. No email program allows all of this.)

Step 2. Archive (or delete) everything else from the inbox. You can always search for anything you need to retrieve.

Step 3. Work from your todo list, not the inbox. After steps 1 and 2 the inbox will be totally empty, so this will be easy to do.

Aaaand that’s it. Three steps and you have an empty inbox. After the first time, you can accomplish steps 1 and 2 once a day – you might do it in the morning, or last thing in the evening – within a few minutes.

Of course, according most press accounts, this process doesn’t exist, or doesn’t work, or is simply impossible. But at Creative Good we have used it for years to run our consulting practice and our Gel conference, write two books (here and here), create a mobile productivity suite, and so on. Pretty amazing to do this with a method that doesn’t exist!

I will note that our own todo list, called Good Todo, works in tandem with the method above. For everyone awaiting an invite to the latest hot-startup productivity app, while you’re waiting, you can sign up for Good Todo for free. After you’ve signed up, you can log in via the iPhone/iPad app or the Android app. For Step 1 above, just forward the action-item email to today@goodtodo.com and you’re done.

Of course, once the inbox is empty, there’s an extra challenge ahead of actually doing the work on the todo list. You’ll be well prepared. When your todos are properly on a todo list – fully exposed and editable, not crammed away in an inbox somewhere – you will be ready to get to work.

That is what you want, isn’t it?

COMMENTS

  1. Hugh O'Donnell February 14, 2013 3:08 pm

    GoodToDo is the way to go. It’s deceptively simple, but extremely flexible and powerful. A todo list, a tickler file, and a calendar to which you can email a task directly from your inbox.

    In fact, it’s so flexible that after the better part of a year of using GoodToDo, I’m still adjusting it to suit how I work.

    Best of all, Mark, whom I have yet to meet in person (I’m in Oregon, he’s in NY), is super responsive to emails about the program and his book, Bit Literacy.

    Try the free version of GoodToDo, then do what I did. Invest a few bucks after about five minutes of playing with it.

    Thanks, Mark!

  2. Anne Kennedy February 14, 2013 8:50 pm

    Great points on the in box. I carried Marks ‘Bit Literacy’ ebook around on my phone for years before I finally got around to reading it, and now I am true believer. Zero inbox is bliss. Good Todo is so easy to use and helps a lot . . . at least as soon as I remembered to check in with it!
    Together with the Pomodoro method (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique) I have stilled that panicky feeling of looming tasks.

  3. Tom Robinson February 14, 2013 11:32 pm

    Thanks! I love the idea of zeroing out my Inbox. If I received a twentieth as many emails I could maybe do it.

    The way it works for me (and, I’ll bet, lots of others) is that there’s always more work to do than time to do it, and meanwhile I continually get bales of email. People call me or IM me to specify the one(s) I particularly need to read for the pressing need of the moment. The rest …? They may well contain todos for me, so I need to read them sooner or later. They just have to wait for the odd free 5 minutes so I can make a tiny dent in their bulk. Or till someone phones or IMs me about them.

    A couple of years ago, right after I read the book, I got all enthusiastic and buckled down and emptied my Inbox and harvested all the todos. It felt great. Next Monday, it was as if I hadn’t bothered. I never got there again. Now I feel a sense of accomplishment when I can get my Inbox down under a thousand. It’s been a month or two.

  4. rikin jariwala February 16, 2013 5:11 am

    Sincere thanks for this article and for the 3 points in 3 simple sentences.

    To share with you and say it as simply … Already making an impact.

    Cheers, Rikin