For years I've been one of those types that operates most effectively while in a state of chaos. I've tried paper planners, electronic planners, and even online planners… and nothing has worked. Similarly I've had no methodical way of maintaining the work, personal, and side business email accounts. All tasks were always accomplished, but the process just wasn't pretty. Chaos was exciting, invigorating, and challenging.
Over the past year I've realized that chaos is no longer effective, probably as the perfect memory and rapid-fire decision-making required by chaotic management meets its match: advancing age. So at home and the home office I weeded through boxes and boxes of paper files, shredded 90% of them, and scanned the rest. Voila! No paper at home. I then forced myself to start using a planner, and the discipline is slowly building on that front… although I still prefer free-form notes.
At the office I haven't maintained any paper files for a couple years. Anything critical is in electronic format, and by nature of my position I have the luxury of safely assuming someone else has a copy of anything else I need. I take a lot of pride in being able to say "nope, don't have it!" to anyone who asks if I have a certain piece of paper. There's not a single file cabinet in my office and virtually no paper on my stand up desk.
The same couldn't be said for email, so this past month I launched an assault on that medium. I used to keep several hundred emails in the inbox of each account, which formed both an informal action/followup list and a record of discussions. It simply wasn't practical and I'd spend a couple hours each day just sorting through them all. Even then I'd receive questions from annoyed people asking if I'd read their particular email. Usually my parents. Chaotic management was being transformed from a thrill to a scary, laborious chore.
Recently we sent a boatload of people through GTD (Getting Things Done) training which advocates a rather strict methodology for handling email, in particular taking immediate action on every incoming message. The intent is to keep zero emails in the inbox. At first I rolled my eyes knowing how far away I was from such a goal. I also knew that I could never maintain a slew of "@action" style folders. But the challenge intrigued me so on one unusually free Friday I sat down for a few hours with the work inbox.
I was wrong; there were over 500 emails in it. Ok…. I knew that most were simply messages I thought I might want to read again, so I first used my typical pruning mechanism. I sorted by sender and killed about 300 right off the bat. Replies to replies, automatic notifications that certain reports could be found at some other network location, and the like. Poof! Then I sorted by date ascending and took a look at the oldest. I immediately knew that any response to a question from a year or so ago was going to be fruitless, if not downright embarrassing, so those got lopped off. Down to 100. Then I sorted by subject and started the real work. Real replies, action, or delegating. It took me a couple more hours, but I got the inbox down to about 20.
The final push came after one of my staff members emailed me that she just hit "inbox:0". Holy cow. Could I nail those last 20? By the end of the following week I had… and then watched it creep up to 20 again just in the space of going to lunch. That became the challenge, and what has motivated me over the past week: could I keep ahead of the flood, which comes in at a pace of 20 to 30 an hour during a typical day? For the last several days I have left the office each day with less than 5 and arrived the next morning with about 30, but that's fine. I feel it's sustainable, and I do hit inbox:0 at least once each day.
During this process I didn't save any email into a separate special folder. Critical items went into non-email electronic documents so I don't have duplicate folders in the email and file areas. So what about all those other email folders? Could I kill them too? Last Friday I decided to try. Entire folders filled with old emails were summarily sent to electronic heaven. Action items were transcribed into my planner. Critical records of customer discussions and the like were put into non-email electronic files on my computer. Then yesterday, after a final brief task of emptying the sent mail folder and trash folder, it finally happened:
Not just Inbox:0, Mailbox:0. Not a damn email anywhere to be found… at least for a few seconds until the next one arrived. I killed that one out of pure spite without even looking at it just so I could marvel a bit longer at my accomplishment. The head of a company with hundreds of email-loving employees has zero emails, anywhere. Bite me, world!
Incredibly liberating… and then I felt a wave of loneliness. Those mountains of emails were connections to friends and coworkers. Strange. But I'm sure I'll get over it.
This past weekend I started to put some time into the other email accounts, and soon I'll start on the gigs and gigs of electronic files. Electronic 5S. There's some strange zen in sitting on the beach with a laptop, slashing the clutter of files and emails.
Remember a couple years ago when I suggested that a desired attribute of a new home should be less storage space, not more? Perhaps an analogous challenge in today's electronic world should be a smaller hard drive, not larger. Perhaps smaller really is better?