My inbox at zero

I have (basically) no e-mails in my inbox. I’m not talking about work. I’m talking about the hundreds of personal ones that are about all my stuff and my kid’s stuff and sometimes my husband’s stuff. A fair percentage of these e-mails usually need some sort of attention, though not particularly urgently.

It’s taken me the better part of a year but I’ve finally gotten my e-mail to a happy place. It’s not exactly rocket science, but I did a few things for a long time and slowly but surely it got better, and I got better. Before I go on – can I just tell you how awesome it us to not be using my e-mail in box as a weird sort of to-do list? All that blankness is inspiring.

Step 1: First things first, unsubscribe and delete, preferably in that order. Do this ruthlessly. Coupon codes to all your favorite shops are readily available with a quick internet search whenever you actually need them. Unsubscribing from store/sales e-mails is amazingly good for both your wallet and your e-mail count. Do it. Unsubscribe from as many things as you can that are not necessary or amazingly valuable for your well being. My experience says you might need to do this for the rest of your life, but it gets to be a much more occasional occurrence. Hint – If you can’t bring yourself to completely unsubscribe from a particularly beloved site, most reputable sites have options where you can ask them to send less – start with that.

Step 2: Sort it out. Yes, I have sub-folders. Some things need to be kept for a period of time, just not in my in box. There is one rule, I only move things to a sub-folder if it doesn’t need anything from me but I might need something from it. Sub-folders are for reference, not to-do. Examples would be an order confirmation that would drop into the “Pending” folder until the order comes in and I knew it was all good. An air or hotel reservation is plopped into the “Travel” folder until the trip is done. I have about 15 folders. For me that is enough that I can find (and sort) things quickly. It’s specific enough (one for general pending, one for the house, one for the kid, one for each place we volunteer, etc.) for my needs without being so specific that I waste time deciding where to put something. The folders took a little trial and error but I’m in a sweet spot right now. Like Goldilocks I have just the right amount. Hint – don’t forget to periodically go back and delete the old stuff from the folders that you really don’t need anymore. The receipt for last week’s concert tickets can be trashed now.

Step 3: Just do it. This part gets trickier. I was getting a lot less e-mails every day, and sorting out the ones that were just for reference but I still had at least a hundred sitting in my inbox at any given point. Those all required some sort of action on my part. So I had to commit to action – to actually doing stuff with e-mail when I read it. Let’s be honest, anything urgent is going to come via text or a phone call. E-mail is for the lower key stuff so you can screen it a few times a day, but I started to set aside dedicated time each night to actually read it and do the stuff. Remember how I said this whole process took me almost a year? Not kidding.

It went like this… if someone sent a new address, I’d actually put it in my contacts (and delete the e-mail). The kid’s activity schedule got put in my daily calendar (and the e-mail was deleted or moved to folder). Digital receipts (for me) get put in Quicken and logged in my budget then stored if needed (most don’t need to be). Quick questions get quick responses. Doing these sorts of little, easy things got me down to about 30 e-mails. Not the same 30 mind you, but still it hovered around 30. And so I made it my mission to hold it at 30. Some days were harder than others.

Step 4: Thirty to zero in about 2 months. I admit keeping anywhere near zero is a work in progress. Sometimes there is one that is about an event that is really soon and I could move it, but the event is so soon I don’t want to move it to a folder just to go back and delete it the day after tomorrow. Sometimes it’s an e-mail that requires a longer researched response than I have time for today. It could be a more urgent one that I am waiting on a reply, and I don’t want it to drop off my radar. So once I got to zero I made it my goal to hold it under 10, because 10 is doable and yet still soooo much better than hundreds.

What it looks like in real life. In the last 24 hours I received 49 new emails. Of those I was able to skim and delete 39 (80%) right away. This does not mean they were junk – just that I got what I needed out of them and moved on. This took about 5 minutes. One more e-mail got a skim and an unsubscribe (under 30 seconds total). That left 8 that needed actual attention.

-3 required a quick reply but no research or anything else (and then delete).
-3 were informational, I will need it later, so I looked it over to make sure it was actually what I needed and then it went into a folder.
-1 was a meeting request so I had to look at my calendar and suggest a couple times that would work
-1 was a product recall notification, that took a few minutes to track down the serial number of the item, but it didn’t apply to me after all.

And there you have it, I’m back to where I started. I’m pretty good at this after all those months of holding my inbox at 30, and the two additional months (so far) of holding it at 10. It takes practice and blocks of actual dedicated time but I spend a lot less total time now than when I checked my e-mail relentlessly but seldom did much about any of it.

P.S. If you worry you won’t have something when you need it, remember that you can decide how often to empty your trash. Just in case is already covered, just not in your inbox.

Ten Minutes

It’s (way) under ten minutes to read this. Why? Because ten minutes is my new magic number. Not exactly a resolution (but in that family of making better choices) I’ve decided to dedicate 10 minutes each day to two things I want to make progress on. One is this, the other is my photography. Both tend to slip off the to do list because I make them bigger and bigger in my head until It feels like I might need months or years (not minutes) to make the progress I want.

I’ve been reading all sorts of excellent books on habits and goals and effectiveness, and it became really clear that I have goals, that they are clear, and I am my own worst enemy. In waiting for that perfect block of time where i could make amazing progress and “flow”, I successfully mastered ignoring all sorts of small opportunities. For me 10 minutes is nothing. I have ten minutes available all the dang time and I usually fritter it away because in my head it’s not enough time to do anything useful with. So all I have to do is shift how I use two little bits of time a day.

It’s also worth noting that my two ten minute tasks are vague enough that how I use those ten minutes can be really varied – which I hope will keep the excuses at bay. For photography I’m working through an online photo editing class, but today I organized and renamed some pics from Christmas while my daughter brushed her teeth and washed her face before bed. The draft of this post was written in an email to myself in 10 minutes, another day the ten minutes was searching for an out of print book I wanted to read for another post (I found it).

If you start with the assumption that you have just 10 minutes a day to commit to something important to you, then it turns out you just found more than 60 bonus hours this year for that something. Who knew I had so much free time?