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Getting Things Done

Help! I’m Buried By My Inbox

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Steve,

Can you help me better understand how, and more particularly when, I should clarify new items that come into my email inbox? It seems like it would take less time to scan my emails for the most important ones I need to take care of, and leave the less important issues for later. I’d appreciate any advice you could offer.

Stuck in Clarify

Dear Stuck,

Recently, I was at a session where we discussed the number of emails currently in our respective inboxes. The first person to respond had 151 emails. Before she even finished saying, “One-hundred-and-fifty-one,” the person to her left cut her off with, “Amateur!” As it turned out, he was sitting on 5,000!

As we dug in further, we found that much of that backlog was a result of how he interacted with those emails—and surprisingly little to do with the raw number of email he received. And he’s not alone. Many of our GTD® participants own up to having email inboxes that range from full to overflowing. To shed some light on this common challenge, I’ll refer to the CCORE skills from Getting Things Done. CCORE is an acronym from GTD Training that stands for Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. Let’s bring some clarification to Clarify.

The overarching principle behind Clarify is to be familiar with what inputs are coming your way and, more importantly, what type and amount of effort they require of you. To do this effectively, you have to do some thinking and make some decisions regarding those items before taking action. While it may seem like a nuisance to add in this thinking and decision time to your email work, realize that you can either think and decide when things show up, or when they blow up. Of the two options, the preferred choice seems pretty obvious, right? So why, would anyone choose the latter of the two options? No one says, “Let’s see . . . I prefer to only deal with things once they’ve either fallen through the cracks or blown up into a crisis.” But unfortunately, it’s rarely framed this way. Usually, the dilemma comes packaged in an efficiency wrapper: “Why spend all that time ‘thinking’ about getting things done when I could actually just get things done?” People who succumb to this half-truth spend a lot of time engaged in emergency scanning.

Emergency scanning is the process of looking through your inbox for any high-priority emails and responding to those while leaving the others for later. And it’s not that this practice is necessarily evil. It’s great when you’ve just stepped out of an all-day meeting and have a few minutes to figure out if anything urgent requires your attention, or if the person you’ve been waiting to hear from has responded. The problem is when emergency scanning becomes the only way you clarify. Working in this mode ensures that you address only the high-priority items while creating a healthy backlog of less-urgent emails that grow to fill the available space (Parkinson’s fourth law of email). Each of these backlogged emails require multiple touches to re-clarify and re-figure out what needs to be done about it so by saving them for later, you are not getting rid of them. Rather, you are duplicating the amount of work it takes to read them, clarify them, and take any necessary actions.

However, if you take the time to Clarify on your first read—i.e. make decisions about what each email means to you and how you’ll respond—you can either get the task done immediately, file it away for important use later, or add it to a project with the next action clearly identified. Most importantly, you can move on from that email, release its hold on your mental to-do list, and start getting work done.

Clarifying once, and only once, when things show up in our inbox not only creates a proactive bond between you and your stuff, it’s also an efficient way to evaluate your workload and prioritize your commitments. Now, to make it a little easier, you may find it’s useful to clarify with your email in off-line mode. That way, you won’t feel tempted to go back to the top every time a new message makes it’s Pavlovian entrance (bing!).

If you find you have a backlog only a mother could love, I suggest something a little different. Pick a date in the past (two weeks or older works well), and move all those emails out of your inbox and into a folder titled “to be clarified.” This way, you’ll still have them (for those of you who’ve grown attached), and you can chip away at them over time as you maintain a more healthy load.

In one organization, teams that engaged their GTD skills reported an average of thirty minutes of “extra” time they hadn’t enjoyed previously. And where did the majority of that new time come from? A good chunk came from not having to touch their emails multiple times before taking action on them.

For those just beginning, it might take you a little longer to grow accustomed to the new discipline of clarifying. But over time, you’ll find clarifying becomes easier and quicker. And, the biggest benefit you’ll find is the direct link between how clear your next actions are and your ability to take action.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Getting Things Done

7 thoughts on “Help! I’m Buried By My Inbox”

  1. Ralph

    Folders are so useful for this type of thing. I have a read later folder (not urgent but interesting) Follow-up (I periodically check this and follow-up) and several categories with different levels of priority (kind of Franklin Planner style). I have never understood how anyone could function keeping everything in their in-box without using folders.

    1. Steve Willis

      That’s been my experience also. When I stopped using my inbox as a storage folder, it changed my life.

  2. Malcolm

    Establishing rules for the inbox relating to people, activities, clients, events are easy to do and make the inbox an “at a glance” activity instead of a search, read, decide scenario – saves tremendous amounts of time.

  3. Ammon

    So I work on a team that shares an inbox. How do you clarify as a group?

    1. Steve Willis

      As in, anybody on the team can answer, or delete any email?

  4. Kath Robinson

    If using MS Outlook, There are 2 tools I use daily…Categories and Clean Up. You can create as many categories as you want and color-code them. Every e-mail that comes in gets assigned to at least one category. Then I can look at them by subject…and if it’s in multiple categories, it is visible in each category, which for my multi-faceted workload is critical. Your e-mail count stays the same. If you do no other categories, at least do “Action Needed” and “Waiting for Response” categories. 99% of e-mails will fit into one of these categories and it’s a very simple way to check your “to do” list and see who has taken too long to respond and needs a reminder.

    The other tool is “Clean Up”. This puts any e-mail redundancies into your Deleted folder (where it is retrievable). If an e-mail has an added/deleted participant, attachment on/off, etc. it is saved…this just removes clean old back-and-forth conversations so that it just has the latest one. I do this multiple times a day, to great benefit.

    Thank you for all the wisdom from Crucial Skills!

  5. Sandra

    Great suggestions! And I can’t imagine life without all my folders. At least once a week I have to verbally follow up with a colleague about an email I sent a couple of days prior. He has so many emails that it takes too long to find it using the search function so he just asks me to send it again. No wonder he is always so stressed out.

    I have benefited greatly from the “touch it once” principle. Obviously it is not practical for every email that comes through, but as soon as I read an email, I try to do what it requires and then file it in the appropriate folder. If I can’t deal with it then and there, it stays in my inbox, but it is rare for me to have more than 15 – 20 emails in my inbox. If I’m not organized, I’m too stressed to be productive.

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