Last week at the OutBound Conference, I asked the audience of 400 people how many had emailed me directly. Something like 30 percent of the audience raised their hands. I asked them to raise their hands again if I had emailed them back, and the same hands went up. Then I asked them to leave their hands up if I had emailed them back within 24 hours. All of the hands disappeared, and everyone laughed a sort of uncomfortable laugh.
The workshop I was giving was on productivity. I explained that I don’t live in my inbox. I scan it three or four times throughout the day, looking only for email that requires my immediate attention, of which there are few. What isn’t urgent normally get processed on Wednesday or Saturday mornings—when I do reply to every email.
Here’s the thing. On your death bed, you are not going to turn and say to the people who love you, “I can die happy now, knowing that I am at Inbox Zero.”
An email is mostly a series of commitments that have been made for you without your consent.
The first commitment you have had made on your behalf is to read the email to discover what it says. Even if you don’t know the person who sent the email, you have to give it your attention to determine whether or not it requires your time or attention. Even when it doesn’t need your time or attention, it has already commanded your time and attention.
The second commitment that has been made for you is the commitment to decide what to do with the email. Does it require you to do something? Does it tell you something you need to know? Look, this is not a massive cognitive load, but it still requires that you do something, and the reasons your inbox has so many unprocessed emails living there now is because deciding what something means or what you have to do with it can be real work.
The third commitment is some sort of action. Maybe you can delete a lot of the email that shows up in your inbox. But many of them require a response, and that response takes time and energy—even if only a small amount.
I read and respond to every email because people and relationships are important to me. But being productive requires that you do what is most important, not what is most recent, and keeping up with email is a shift of focus from important to recent.
If you want to be super-productive, you have to focus on what’s most important first, and let everything that isn’t follow that work.