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How I Achieved Inbox Zero in 4 Steps

How I Achieved Inbox Zero in 4 Steps

I love email. I can be hooked to my inbox all day on my trusty smartphone — and therefore, I love my smartphone too!

But I was not always an email-lover. Three and a half years ago, when I was working at a day job, I barely felt the need to check my email. Only after I started on my entrepreneurial journey, did I begin holding my emails dear. I am a blogger, a freelance writer, an editor, a behavioral coach and an online marketer. I am also religious about responding to every message I possibly can.

If you’re an entrepreneur too, and wondering what is it with us and email, you’re not alone. To me, email is the gateway to opportunities, an exchange of stellar ideas, or a chance to help a budding job-quitter blaze the right trail. That said, at times, email has become my worst enemy. For one, my partner has “caught” me checking and responding to messages on my phone in bed. At other times, my inbox has been the sole reason I’ve had near-zero productivity for hours.

There was an urgent need to manage my inbox (it counted 41,377 at the time!) and keep it clean.

So, I subscribed to the Inbox Zero practice, where every day each item in your inbox must be moved to the archives, trash or some other folder.

Here are the four simple hacks I used to do it, and you can too:

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1. Be Generous With Deleting Email

I was talking to Aymeric, founder of Weekplan.net, and asked him how he maintained his sanity and kept his inbox clean all the time. Aymeric was kind enough to give me his top tip, but also honest to reveal that he only recently hit Inbox Zero (which is pretty hard).

His number one tip? Be generous with email deletion.

I have a confession to make: I used to save each and every email, thinking I may need it sometime in future. May be it is a Cancerian trait or something, but I certainly was not deleting generously.

Then Einstein spoke to me: Psst…”the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Of course! Here I was expecting to achieve Inbox Zero and yet doing the same ol’, same ol’. Once I took Einstein’s advice, changed my ways and hit DELETE, things became more manageable.

A word of caution: You can go and delete everything in your inbox, followed by a momentary sigh of relief, only to be attacked by panic shortly thereafter. So don’t be a blind deleting machine — delete smartly. The best way I’ve found for smart deletion is to have folders or labels (or whatever you prefer). You can also choose a label and delete it entirely without touching other messages.

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For example, in 2009, when I started my freelance writing business, I subscribed to loads of newsletters that helped freelancers. I labeled them as “Blogging stuff”, “Freelance writing”, “Follow up blog emails” etc.

In hindsight, I admit my labeling skills were below par, but they served the purpose. Today I’ve come a long way and don’t need beginner tips anymore. So I hit DELETE and killed these labels in a heartbeat.

2. Unsubscribe Ruthlessly

And I mean ruthlessly. In the last few weeks, I have unsubscribed from 60% of the newsletters I don’t need any more. That was a relief because I didn’t have to keep working at cleaning up the mess.

Not only that, having put the effort into unsubscribing so much in the past few days, I kept the habit of subscribing in check.

I can sometimes suffer from the shiny-object syndrome. I think we all do. When I saw a new website, a cool app, or found a nice blog, I wanted to subscribe to them. And let’s not forget, I loved collecting and filing away the freebies people give away on their websites!

So, I became mindful of subscribing. Just before hitting “submit”, I asked myself: Do I really need this service/e-book/subscription? The keyword here is “need” versus “want”.

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It’s amazing how most of the time the answer was a resounding, “No”.

3. Ask Smart Questions First

One of my first blogs was in the area of freelance writing where I shared writing tips and tricks with other freelancers. I received a lot of email from fellow and budding writers sharing their thoughts, and at times, asking for help. Of course, being who I was, I took time and religiously replied to every email. Then it started getting a little too much because I was spending a lot of time writing long replies to a dozen questions that a newbie had packed into just one email. At times, the answer would be already available on my blog or the Net. The sender had not done their research.

So I came up with a few ninja questions:

  • Can this wait? If yes, move to “Follow up” label. If no, ask the next question.
  • Does this really require my attention? If no, move to Archives/Trash. If yes, ask the next question.
  •  Can I direct them to a resource instead? If yes, send the resource link and move to Archives/Trash. If no, ask the next question.
  • Am I ever going to respond/refer to this? If no, then move to Trash. If yes, respond in less than 5-sentences, move to Archives/Trash and get it done.

4. Be OK If You Don’t Achieve Inbox Zero Literally

I must admit, the first time I saw my inbox size go down from 41,377 to 0, I felt a little lonely. It was as if I was left in the Australian bush all on my own. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to really do Inbox Zero.

Yikes!

When I received a new email, I tried wiping its existence off the surface of my inbox. But it hurt me a little more. If Inbox Zero was the bush, a thriving, overflowing inbox was the city. And I’ve always been a city gal.

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I continued to keep my inbox empty for the next few days, but the sombre feeling wouldn’t go away. Then I looked online to see if other people were feeling the same uneasiness inside and bumped into Jeff Bercovici’s Inbox 50.

What a relief! Jeff probably describes the feeling much better than I do. He writes, “To do Inbox Zero, you have to like Inbox Zero.”

How true. To do the bush, I must like it first. Which I don’t right now.

So my point? It’s OK if you cannot survive the zilch. I’ve found the mid-way in Inbox 50-100. You can find it in Inbox 80, or Inbox 20. Take your pick. So long it doesn’t get back to Inbox 41,377!

Your Thoughts?

Would you ever try to achieve Inbox Zero? Or have you already? Love to hear your thoughts!

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Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.

How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multi-tasking.

Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multi-tasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time. Spoiler alert: multi-tasking is not the answer.

Why is multitasking a myth?

The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.

Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.

You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.

Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.

We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.

Your brain on multi-tasking

Your brain wasn’t designed to multi-tasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.

When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.

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But I can juggle multiple tasks!

You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.

For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.

Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.

Why multitasking is failing you

Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’re 4 reasons why you should stop multitasking:

Multitasking wastes your time.

You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.

In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?

It makes you dumber.

A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.

You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.

This is an emotional response.

There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.

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Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?

It’ll wear you out.

When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.

We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.

How to stop multitasking and work productively

Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.

In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.

Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:

1. Consciously change gears

Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.

As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.

This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.

2. Manage multiple tasks without multitasking

Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.

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Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.

This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.

3. Set aside distractions

Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.

If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.

Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.

Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.

4. Take care of yourself

We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.

Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.

In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.

5. Take a break

People are more likely to head to YouTube or check their social media when they need a break. Instead of trying to work and watch a mindless video at the same time, give yourself times when you’re allowed to enjoy your distracting activity of choice.

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Limit how much time you’ll spend on this break so that your guilt-free distraction time doesn’t turn into hours of wasted time.

6. Make technology your ally

Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.

Apps like Forest turn staying focused into a game. Extensions like RescueTime help you track your online habits so that you can be more aware of how you spend your time.

The key to productivity: Focus

Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.

Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss my other article:

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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