How to check e-mail first thing – without going crazy by noon

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When I asked what “habits” you use to increase your productivity instead of the “tools” you use for Getting Things Done (GTD) over on LinkedIn, I was, and still am, surprised by the volume and range of responses. They are interesting, thoughtful and worth the read all by itself. Not every habit works for every person, of course, but the range of suggestions offers a nugget for every person out there.

One of the bigger themes in that thread is to “not check e-mail first thing in the morning.” There are lots of good reasons to not check the first thing — a feeling of accomplishment for getting something on your to-do list done first, pushing away the fire hose for an hour, focusing on your stuff first — all good things.

I check e-mail first thing every morning

I completely go the other way. I always check e-mail the very first thing. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is check e-mail — Cube Rules is a global business, not an 8-5 local office, after all, and people in Asia and Europe are just as valued readers and customers as people in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. At my consulting gig, I always check e-mail in the morning simply because I don’t want lurking electrons turning my day from normal to emergency du joir.

Have I done well with this habit? No. What I usually do is quickly read all my e-mails looking for emergencies or ones that look like I might have to do something. I keep going down the list until I’m done. Cool. I checked my e-mail. But, the truth of the matter is that, except for no-brainer deletes, all of my e-mail is still there. And this is a big reason proponents of e-mail tell you to not check e-mail the first thing.

How many read, but unprocessed e-mails are in your in-box now? Go count…

Open up e-mail and people have twenty, fifty, (or hundreds) of opened and read e-mails still sitting in their inbox. And you know what? All those e-mails become a big lump of stuff you don’t want to do. By not dealing with the e-mails as you read them, you have to go through all of them all over again. Scanning your e-mail for emergencies means you didn’t really do anything with your e-mails except open them, perhaps read all of them (and maybe didn’t read them all the way), and then closed the e-mail and moved on. All that thinking about what is in the e-mail still needs doing, but you think you read your e-mail and now you can move on. You can’t.

This, my friends, is where your productivity around e-mail and capturing what needs doing fails.

Instead of just checking e-mail, actually process it so it is done

What I did last week after figuring this out (a GTD coach would have caught this years ago….) was to sit down to e-mail with the attitude of not just “checking” my e-mail, but actually reading it, deciding what to do with it, and driving my in-box to zero. If you do this first thing, you process e-mail and then move on until the next time you check your e-mail.

How do you do this? It is pretty straightforward once you take this “process” versus “check” approach.

First, read the entire e-mail. People are not very good about putting what they want up front in the e-mail and don’t clearly define what needs doing.

Second, decide what in the e-mail applies to you and your work. Does the e-mail offer you information? Then, having read the information, delete the e-mail, or, if you need it for reference (do you really need it for reference?), file it into a reference folder and get it out of your in-box.

If it takes less than two minutes to respond (careful here: two minutes is not a long time), then respond and delete the e-mail.

Does the e-mail give you something to do? Then figure out what it is you need to do from the e-mail, define that to-do in your to-do list, included the e-mail or contents in the to-do (or not), and delete the e-mail. Outlook, for example, allows you to drag the e-mail from your in-box to a task in Outlook so you have the e-mail right there to reply to with your deliverable.

Notice the key here? Decide what the e-mail means to your work, define that work, and delete the e-mail. Don’t just check it or scan it: process it.

How empty is your in-box?

For those of you with dozens — or hundreds — of e-mails still lurking with deliverables in your in-box, don’t look at this as daunting even though you really need to follow this process to clean up your in-box. Just start with your unread e-mails in your in-box now. Ensure the number of e-mails in your in-box doesn’t get any bigger. You’ll get a good sense of accomplishment and then realize that using this same process for the rest of your e-mails needs doing.

Did you get your in-box to zero?

  • Great post! I see friends’ email boxes and I don’t know how they can not go crazy with dozens or even hundreds of emails in their inbox, half of them unread! I tend to keep mine below 20, below 10 on a good week. I use the red, yellow, and blue flags in Outlook at work (or Superstars for my personal Gmail account) to mark if something needs follow-up urgently, within the week, or if I’m waiting on follow-up, respectively. Everything else gets archived or trashed.

  • I go about 75% of the way.

    I’ve never attempted to reach inbox zero. I’m not certain I ever will.

    Instead I read, save or delete everything. Then operate with a float of around six to ten emails nagging me to do stuff that isn’t urgent, but needs attention when there’s an odd moment.

    This way I’m not bogged down with an attention-draining overhead and I’m not slavishly ticking off boxes to meet some theoretical but otherwise meaningless target.

    • That works. The key is to get e-mail to some small number that fits with how you work. My personal number is around ten, but when I take the extra effort to figure out those ten — the hardest ones — I tend to put more trust in my system.

      No one can follow everything to the nth degree. But the principles apply. Nice to see you again, Bill!

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