My heart starts beating fast whenever I look at my Inbox. I am unable to fathom how I reached this stage. There are tons of messages which I haven't read. I have tried a few techniques - bottom-up, top-down, today's emails, this week's emails. Every time, I attack it with renewed vigor. The number of unprocessed emails goes down. But before long, I am back to where I started. How does this happen? My stubbornness prevents me from accepting defeat. During an informal chat with my friend, I realized where I was going wrong. It was always staring in my face. Sometimes it is a herculean task to recognize the obvious.
My friend had attended an interview. During the interview, he was present with a simulated scenario. He has come back from a long weekend. There have a couple of incidents which has gradually escalated. Now everybody is on a war footing, an expression preferred by my friend to convey the urgency. I am against this usage because people who have not seen any form of combat mouths this phrase. The interviewer presents a simulated Outlook client and asks to sort out his emails. At this point, I was impressed with the ingenuity of the interview process. In the modern workplace, Outlook client is a tool. There is no better way to judge a professional by how he manages his emails.
I know you will be wondering about how my friend fared. He performed well and cleared the interview. Now that is past us, let us turn back to the important lesson of the day. There has to be a strategy to deal with emails. Most of are caught up in the email maze is because we don't have a strategy. We talk about strategies in a lot of contexts but never related to email. My friend fared well because he understood this point. He dedicated the first five minutes to devise a strategy. Then he started tackling the emails. He didn't get to Inbox Zero. But he was able to demonstrate his abilities which are what counts at the end of the day.
I took a leaf out of my friend's experience. I worked out a system. I categorized the emails based on hierarchies. The hierarchical structure was very simple. There are two levels above me, and there are two levels below. My boss and his boss constitutes the two levels above me. My team and their team are the two levels above me. Then there are my peers. In total, there are five levels. Based on the categorization, I created five search folders named L-2, L-1, L0, L+1, L+2. The next is the tricky part. How do I prioritize these levels? I decided to keep it simple. I will focus on two levels that immediately above and below me. So I scanned constantly for L-1 and L+1. Some of the activities from L-1 converted to actions for L0 and L+1. At L+1, I had to ensure nothing mutated into an issue. I still have a truckload of emails, but my stress levels have reduced.
There is also another way to have a fresh start. This approach is easy to adopt when all attempts to Inbox Zero fails. We can declare Email Bankruptcy. This process is similar to financial bankruptcy. Though both the approaches take courage, declaring email bankruptcy is a much simpler process. If you are interested, Michael Hyatt has guidelines on how to declare bankruptcy and start fresh.
Photo Courtesy: Clint Lalonde