Recently at work a few of my teammates and myself were discussing Agile methodologies and started talking about the differences between having a process, versus not having a process. The point was brought up many times that teams at our organization claim to be using scrum or extreme programming but are really doing what I call “Cowboy Programming”, I am sure that there is a better term for it, but basically they are running down the halls holding the Agile banner but doing whatever they want. They do not have a process. They meet with limited success because the projects they are working on are very small in scope and they have a pretty high level of interaction with their customer. When our company tries to apply this same approach or lack of approach to larger projects it fails, and fails gloriously.
So what is my point? Well, during this discussion I started to realize that having a process, even a flawed one is better than no process at all. If you don’t have a destination in mind and haven’t charted a path to get there how can you tell if you made it or not. The more important part of this to me is the how you are going to get there, not the path and not the destination. I know very Zen right?
So what is the value of a flawed process? The value of a process is that you can compare you success or failure to it and see where you went wrong. If we didn’t have a yard stick how could you communicate if something was shorter or longer, or better yet, measured. The process is a set of expectations about behavior during an activity. Once the activity is complete you can see if your actions meet with your expectations.
Therefore having a process, even a flawed one, will give you a basis for comparison and a way to measure inefficiencies that will lead to improvement. If you do nothing, you have nothing to measure. There is value in a flawed process.
On March 26, 2011 I was meeting with Tim Rayburn and Devlin Liles at our first RoundTable (More info on this coming) meeting. The conversation at some point turned to Inbox Zero. I had heard of it but had to admit I wasn’t really sure what it was all about. I stated that I didn’t think I could achieve zero emails in my inbox and the best I could hope for was to reach zero unread. Yes, at the time I had over 2000 emails in my inbox.
Tim chided me for such a practice and started discussing the virtues of inbox zero. That was enough for me to seriously reconsider my thinking. So, on Monday morning I set about to learn about inbox zero. After watching Inbox Zero by Merlin Man on YouTube, truly inspired I set about employing the techniques outlined by Mr. Man and have been greatly pleased with the results. So much so that I wanted to put a post together discussing what worked for me and why in the hopes that others can free themselves form Inbox Dungeon.
If you can take care of it in two minutes or less do so and delete it
This is one of my favorites, if you can do it in two minutes or less just do it and delete. Done! Gone, not more worries.
If it is something you need to reply to but can’t in two minutes or less move it to a “To Respond” folder
This has turned out to be an awesome strategy, not only does it get it out of the inbox it allowed me to discover a really interesting feature of Outlook. I didn’t realize that Outlook had a feature that if you reply to an email from a folder other than you Inbox it will put the reply in the same folder. This has turned out to be a huge timesaver, if I am ready to archive both of those emails I can select them both and move them instead of having to dumpster dive the “Sent Items” folder.
If at the same time you strive to implement 5 Sentences or Less then creating the responses becomes even easier. What do you usually do when you get an extremely wordy reply to a simple question? Scroll to the bottom and find the main points and actions, right? So, write your response to only include the main points and actions. This will not only increase your time to reply it will also reduce the amount of time the other person spends trying to figure out the information.
If I can’t reply in 5 sentences or less I pick up the phone and call. This is usually because there are questions that need to be answered before I can fully compose my response. Instead of creating a very lengthy email thread that may takes hours or even days of back and forth, just pick up the phone, have the conversation, get the questions out of way. Remember the goal is to reduce the amount of time spent on items in your inbox so you can spend more time on work that brings value.
Don’t let you inbox be your task list
A great point made by Merlin was that you inbox is not a task list and should not be used as such. If you need to do something because of an email, we all get work request via email, then remove it from the inbox and put it on a task list. Then work your task list as normal. Having task in multiple places causes productivity issues due to all of the switching from one list to the other and often results in things being missed or forgotten.
Don’t make archiving emails too difficult.
I had about 25 folders in my personal archive that I used to catalog emails. I couldn’t remember any time I had really needed to find an email in those folders and if I did I used the search in my email client. So, why was I putting them in all of those folders if they didn’t add any value? I know have one “Archive” folder where all things important that need to be saved for a while are put, a few specific project folders and one for each application I support. The application support folders will probably go away as soon as I put some time into pruning them.
In summary I have been using the techniques for about a month now and have been able to achieve Inbox Zero every day. I only have to process about 10 emails at a time, which means I get them done very quickly and get to return to more important work. If you are stuck in you inbox all the time I recommend you give this a try, and decide for yourself if this frees up more of your time to spend on more valuable task. I know it did for me.