In which #1 discusses her March Inbox Zero Goal

March came in like a lion and went out like a mofo.

Why I decided to do this challenge:

I hate my work email.  So much stuff comes in at once.  So, so, SO much whingeing from students who want exceptions to the rules (No.) or who want explanations of why things can’t go the way they want (1.  because I have pedagogical reasons; 2.  because I said so).  My work email frustrates me, overwhelms me, makes me sad.  My personal email is fine!  I love personal email.

But my email inbox at work is full of university-wide spam about stupid events (instantly deleted); stupid shit from textbook publishers (easily deleted); requests from students (which I answer because I need good evals, but I use canned auto-responses); questions, comments, concerns, and suggestions from my RAs and TAs (which I need to act on or consider and use to change things in the future); conversations about college-level committee work (skimmed and filed to be read never again); conversations from my immediate department colleagues about department-level work (often requires a bunch of work; argh!); random crap from random people having little to do with me (again, deleted); emails from colleagues about collaborative projects (labeled and kept so I can do the work we’re talking about); requests to review articles (either declined immediately and deleted, or kept until I review the article so I know where to send my review); emails from colleagues trying to set up meeting times (I don’t have an office phone or I could call); requests for letters of recommendation (labeled and kept until letter is written, then archived); questions and comments from the IRB (responded to and then filed); tons of error messages and other administrative messages from the 7 listservs I manage (easily classified and mostly deleted); questions about the internships I manage (usually require thought or explanation); and a bunch of other stuff.

… are you tired yet?  I am.  I wanted to make this stuff GO AWAY by trying out inbox zero and by keeping on top of incoming mail so that I wasn’t stuck writing emails like “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you.”

Some of this is probably exacerbated by my own unwillingness to confront annoying students in person — I hate having to deal with the ones who whine, bluster, threaten, yell, etc. — so I prefer to do it over email.

How I decided to attack it:

I decided it would be cheating to automatically remove every email from my inbox by just sticking it in a folder but not dealing with it.  That wouldn’t solve the problem of the email still needing to be dealt with.

As you can see on our Monthly Challenges page, I decided I would:

  • start the month by throwing everything in the inbox into a “to do NOW” folder
  • continue to keep the inbox empty each day, while progressively emptying the to do folder, with the goal of having it totally empty by the end of the month.  I will therefore have gotten a lot of tasks done that come to me by email!

Update, day 2:  I may have to ditch this goal.  It is so overwhelming.  I’ll try to hang in there a bit longer.  At least I have reduced my amount of pending email, which is progress.

Update, day 8: Halp!  Too much email!

Update, day 16: Some progress, but also lots of new mail.  Lots and lots.  Like, I mean, a LOT.

Update, day 28: Epic fail.

Am I better off for having done it?

Well, no, I don’t think so.  I did learn some things.  For example, this doesn’t seem to be possible when I get 25 emails in 14 hours and each one requires me to do something or think something or write something or investigate something… can’t keep up.

I did get a lot of things done, and I did make a dent in my overall email.  But I don’t think it’s going to have any lasting effect.

What I learned:

KILL ME NOW.  Wait, no.  But still.  Not this.  Not ever again.  Unless it’s summer.  Maybe not even then.

Give up.  There is no hope.  I can *either* do inbox zero, *or* I can do my job.  Not both.

20 Responses to “In which #1 discusses her March Inbox Zero Goal”

  1. Louise Says:

    I’m an inbox zero fan, it took me a lot of stops and starts to make it a habit though.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      How many emails do you usually get per day? I’ve heard this works for executives and all sorts of people, but I have have too much coming in at one time. Do these people get non-substantive email only, or what?

  2. Dr. Koshary Says:

    I think the whole idea is actually silly. It’s one thing to have hundreds of emails cluttering up your inbox. But seriously, zero? How is it morally superior to throw everything into a ‘to-do’ box? It feels like having some blissed-out yoga instructor telling me to balance my chi, when I have a broken leg. The point is that I need to complete some complicated tasks before it makes sense to put a given email out of sight; maintaining some fetish for an empty inbox doesn’t make anything materially better.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s why I didn’t want to “cheat” and just stick it all in a folder. I wanted it to go away, by being either completed or unnecessary. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

  3. First Gen American Says:

    I’ve given up. I get up to 100 emails a day some days and my company went to googlemail…I hate nested email chains because I inevitably lose an email in a string once in a while.

    I personally like labels. I label anything from my boss and I try to categorize my most important customers, so I know to go through the unread folders from those people first.

    If you don’t do it already, I’d strongly suggest making labels of your common incoming crap (like if you’re on a university mailing list, use that general mail address and make yourself a label and throw it in a separate folder upon entering into your inbox. It really does help.

    I’m also all about the unsubscribe button on random junk.

    Good luck.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh, I’m totally a whiz at filters, labels, multiple inboxes, auto-unsubscribe, marking things as spam, all that stuff. But when you get a lot of action items in the email at once… arrr.

  4. Linda Says:

    I don’t understand why having everything in a To Do folder is better than having it in the Inbox folder. Is it just so you can feel like you accomplished something by having an empty Inbox? If it’s all waiting for you in another folder how have you really accomplished anything?

    My work email is totally out of control and I just accept it. My boss *loves* email. Since he started running our group my email load has grown exponentially. He likes to use it for comments a lot; he’ll respond to a message with a single line comment, then follow up later with another single line comment. Others in my group have started modeling this behavior, so now I have strings of email “conversations” that may have 20 messages. No exaggeration.

    I currently have 4,259 messges in my Inbox of which 857 are unread. I realize that I have so much because I just can’t be bothered to file it anymore; I have many sub-folders for filing, but I only occasionally use them. I think my entire email archive is about half my hard drive right now.

    I’ve just given up.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      See, I can’t devote half my hard drive to email (no matter how big it is!). I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate it when people reply-all with one line. DO NOT WANT.

  5. Karen Says:

    Instead of Inbox Zero (which I have never even contemplated), I try to get to Inbox Twenty from time to time. OK, so maybe Inbox Forty during weekdays. When I get up to Inbox Eighty, it’s time to do some email tomatoes.

  6. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    Two things that have allowed me to dramatically decrease my time spent dickeing around with f***en e-mail:

    (1) NEO Pro E-Mail Organizer for Outlook:

    This thing saves me *huge* amounts of time keeping my e-mails organized, allowing me to use e-mail as my complete unified To-Do system, and searching for important old e-mails in my e-mail archive (complete since 2000, with about 300,000 e-mails in it).

    (2) Ruthlessness about ignoring with extreme prejudice e-mails that don’t further my professional or personal goals.

  7. bethh Says:

    ugh, inbox zero. I think it’s a dirty lie to make us feel inferior. My job is ridiculous with email and I am too busy putting out fires to actually file and deal with things.

    Actually, I think it’s possible – the person who had my job before me DID use GTD and had a very good workflow. Which only makes me feel more inadequate. Of course the job has changed a little bit since she held it, but I know I can do better – I just don’t have time to get there!

  8. Louise Says:

    You can do inbox zero without a To Do folder, I don’t use one as I think it’s just shifting them, not getting rid of them which defeats the purpose. It’s like moving junk around the house instead of throwing it out.
    If an emails needs a response and is not ‘done’ by the end of the day I slot it straight into my diary/calendar so it gets dealt with. I guess it depends on the workplace too, as some places send a lot of crap out via email.

  9. Jacq @ SMRM Says:

    I don’t know your situation – but I’ve been at inbox zero for about 5 years. Like Comrade, I am freaken ruthless when it comes to my inbox. Today, my inbox acts as a to-do list – so when I see people who have hundreds of things in their inbox, I kind of freak out because I think “holy shit! You have all those things to do?!?”

    At the end o the day, if email represents what you need to DO – you need to streamline that somehow – and part of that for me was recognizing XXX wasn’t MY job to do.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Unfortunately, XXX often IS my job, and not in a fun way. Most of my to-do tasks are not one-time things that would take 10 minutes, but larger tasks as part of an overall project, each piece of which can take hours of actual thinking brain work (which is in short supply, and for which I need reference notes). I am so over this semester.

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