Forget Inbox Zero, here’s how you actually go about getting things done

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People are always on the hunt for efficiency and control over the massive information flow they’re facing, and the latest fix for actually getting things done. Amidst all techniques and approaches, I thought I’d outline what at least works for me.

Inbox Zero vs. Inbox Five

The first challenge: dealing with e-mail.

A number of people are hooked on Inbox Zero, although many of them haven’t looked into what it means, but instead taken it literally: i.e. unless you have zero emails in your Inbox, you have failed.

I can’t pretend that I’m well versed in the methodologies behind Inbox Zero, but it’s generally a mindset about having control over your email and where you spend your attention.

Looking at the literal approach, with zero emails in the inbox, it’s probably the most stressful approach there can be. If or when you ever reach Inbox Zero, every new email, every pling, notification and such is almost screaming: “You have failed! You don’t have Inbox Zero anymore, loser!”

Personally, I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible. I think my golden rule, if any, is to have about five e-mails there. Emails that I need to think about and that are currently the most important ones to me.

If I get a new one, I don’t freak out. But if I go over ten e-mails, I need to start cleaning.

Reminders, reminders, reminders!

I believe the most common problem is that people keep email in their inboxes as reminders, to-do-lists or similar, things that have to be dealt with before that email can be moved.

Personally, I quickly make a distinction between inbox-worthy and something I just need to track later down the line. If it’s the latter, I rather just add a reminder to my calendar (usually a week or two later) and follow up then.

Number of chances

If you are the person reaching out to someone, in the need of collaborating or similar, I’d urge you not to give up too quickly. And I’ve realized it’s not that big of a difference between not getting a reply, or getting a few sporadic replies, but nothing is actually moving forward.

So, down to chances. I generally give people about two chances — that could be two reminder e-mails, or two e-mails back and forth, but if I don’t see progress, I’m not going to let that own me till the end of time.

Getting back to people

I’ve written before (quite a long time ago, actually) about what I think about getting back to people. Not replying to emails leads to so much frustration and bad blood, and it’s such a waste.

And if you have an email address but don’t reply, it’s useless. And honestly, it’s not that hard getting back to people. You don’t need to solve every task, you don’t need to write a novel. But just, please, reply.

For me, it’s very simple: it’s about respect, and honestly, about human decency. If someone takes the time to write to you, to initiate a conversation, they deserve the decency of being heard.

I get a lot of email every day, and I reply to those people. If you’ve emailed me and haven’t heard back in a few days, ask again. Because it’s my full intention to do that. And this goes for blog comments, Twitter, Facebook etc as well.

Email as a communication form

It’s not very hard to find people unhappy about handling e-mail and the stress they think is coming from there. And man, if I had gotten a dollar for every time I heard:

Email sucks, there must something better out there.

but then nothing constructive, no alternative comes out of that.

Personally, I think e-mail is great. I really do. It gives me the chance to reply to people when I can, to include necessary references and files, to have a history of that conversation.

Is it optimal for everything? No, of course not. I think especially when things can become a bit heated in writing (goes for all writing, not just e-mail) talking in person is much better to calm things down.

But for overall communication, at least I haven’t seen any other option being close.

Getting things done

If you haven’t gotten tired of this post already, this is where it gets interesting. I have, as many others, tried various approaches to be more effective, to achieve something, to get things done.

And for me at least, it doesn’t matter how many to-do-lists you have, how many GTD processes and how good intentions you have. You could be super-perky, because by general belief you get more things done when you’re happy (although I’m afraid of happy campers). But all that doesn’t matter that much.

It’s about doing things.

I face many things every day where I just sigh and don’t feel like doing them. But the only way of getting things done, is to do them. Simple as that.

There are so many things you can just get rid of by dealing with them directly, instead of mentally storing them, thinking about them and then deal with them later.

Do as much as you can directly. Then it’s off of your mind, and you can relax and do something else. Next time you feel overwhelmed, don’t waste your strength on that feeling, or, at times, not even getting an overview of the situation.

Just start doing tasks, one-by-one, and you’ll see how rewarding it is!

This article by Robert Nyman originally appeared on Robert’s Talk and is republished with permission.

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