My inbox right now has 93 emails, 15 of which are unread. How many do you have?
Over the past few years, Inbox Zero has risen as a popular time management technique. Developed by Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero advocates keeping your email inbox empty at all times. Advocates of Inbox Zero, brag that they are superior to the rest of us. Because they are able to maintain an empty inbox, they have achieved a decluttered brain and can better focus on the important stuff.
This drives me crazy. Inbox Zero is a complete waste of time. I consider myself an expert at only a handful of things in this world, and time management is one of them. Having an inbox that's current and minimal is indeed valuable, but making sure my inbox is at zero daily is wasteful and distracting.
Here are five time management techniques that I'd pick over Inbox Zero any day of the week:
Boomerang is a Gmail extension. It is the single best time management tool I've discovered in my professional career. If you are awaiting a reply from an email you send, you can choose to have that email appear at the top of your inbox at a later date and time of your choosing, if you haven't received a reply by that time. You can also compose an email at any time of day, and send it at a later date. I'll often write emails at 11pm or 6am, and use Boomerang to have them sent out working hours, so as to not disturb my teammates.
Trello is a free task management tool, available on both web and mobile. Trello allows you to prioritize tasks and form various lists. You can have a "To Do Today" list, a "Calls To Make" list, and more. The options are endless.
You can even forward any email to Trello. Inside a Trello board, click "Show Menu", then "More", then "Email-to-board settings". You'll find a unique email address. Forward any emails to this email address and they get added to your Trello board.
This is highly useful for all of those emails that are actually "To-Do" items, and that aren't necessarily time sensitive but that you want to address at some point.
3. Email filters and unsubscribe
Both of these serve the same purpose-- skip the inbox. Unsubscribing from email lists takes time, but it's a tremendous time saver and worth the investment. For emails that you want to get but don't need to read, like coupons to your favorite stores and mailing lists, set up an email filter to skip your inbox and go straight to an email label.
I have a label called "Discounts & Offers." This way, whenever I'm on the market for a discount, I simply go to this folder and see what's available.
4. Top Three List
Reading emails as they come is completely arbitrary and reactive-- the opposite of prioritized and proactive.
Instead of being handcuffed to your email all day long, make a list every morning with the top three business and top three personal tasks you aim to complete by end of the day. I keep my top three lists in Trello. Paper also works, as does any other place you choose to keep the list. The tasks should be small enough to complete.
If you have to write a performance review and it's due in a week, the top three task might be to spend 30 minutes on it today.
5. Turn off ALL email notifications
You know who you are-- if you can't hold a conversation without checking your phone or watch, promise me you'll take 10 minutes today and turn off notifications.
I believe that there should be zero notifications on laptops, and only text message notifications on phones. Constantly opening email only to reply immediately or get it out of your inbox, even if you are going to use Boomerang to put it off until another day, requires non-stop task switching.
Research has proven that multitasking inefficient, and those of us who can focus on one task are at a huge advantage. If you can't bring yourself to turn off all notifications, turn off as many as you can.
6. Just say no
And finally, if all else fails, just say no. It's a myth that you must tend to all requests.
Don't be rude and ghost people, but if you have a task that just never seems to be important enough to do this week, tell the person that you just can't help them. Or, figure out a way to help them that takes five minutes or less of your time. And, if you know someone else who might value the opportunity to do the task, see if you can collaborate and involve others to take on the work.