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Pursuit of Inbox Zero Destroyed My Research Productivity

2014 August 7

If you haven’t heard of it, inbox zero is an email management technique where you pursue an inbox clear of messages. You can accomplish this by doing one of five things to each message each time you go through your inbox or as messages arrive: delete, delegate, respond, defer, or do.

Both the strength and challenge of inbox zero is that it encourages you to “do” whenever an email comes in if that email is doable. If it’s junk, trash it.  If it doesn’t require a response but you might need it later, file it. If it just requires a reply email, send it.  If it’s about something that will only take 10 minutes (maybe 20 or 30, depending on the complexity of emails you usually get), just do it then. What’s left me are things that will take a substantial amount of time to deal with, in which case you can set a reminder to return to that email at a specific day and time in the future when you can schedule it in.

In following this approach, I imagined this left my graduate students wondering why in some cases I respond to their email in 5 minutes, and other times, in 2 days.  Well, there’s your reason.

The inbox zero technique was actually my default strategy with email since before the start of graduate school, before I knew it had a name. I always found it a little baffling that people would allow hundreds or thousands of messages to pile up in their accounts. How would you possibly keep track of what needed doing? Since at least 2003, I’ve sorted read/dealt with emails into folders as soon as they were “dealt with.” Occasionally, I would hit the state of inbox zero (the goal of the inbox zero technique), where your inbox is literally empty. Rare, but it would happen. Mostly during the summer.

The problem with inbox zero as a goal for research faculty is that you rarely have an email that says “go do research,” which means research became the thing I did after inbox zero was reached.  This ended up pushing me into a weird cycle for a few years: I would get all my service done (article peer review, committee work), I would get all my teaching done (class is a hard deadline), I would be active in mentoring (graduate students send emails, so those emails end up being “done”), and I would end up with a large number of research studies being run by graduate students (the consequence of those graduate student emails and subsequent meetings), but I would only be able to get one or two article manuscripts out each year.

It might seem odd that I had so many studies running yet relatively little actual writing going on.  That is because inbox zero as a time management technique really only requires you to act on your incoming emails; if it’s not in an email, it’s not “to do.”  And when your day is full of 10- to 20-minute tasks, it becomes difficult to find a stretch of time for writing while inbox zero remains a few emails away.

Critically, over a few years, I also learned an important related lesson: quick responses to emails bring more emails.  Where I might respond to 30 emails per day if I responded to them in a single daily batch, my pursuit of inbox zero resulted in maybe 50 emails per day instead.  That adds up, and quickly.

To deal with both of these problems, I’ve now instituted a modified inbox zero approach, which I think of as inbox zero with pause days.  Each week, I set aside at least one (and preferably two) days, which are reserved for writing.  On pause days, I don’t keep my email program open.  I check once every hour or two, on purpose, and I put my phone out of reach.  When I do read email, I don’t follow my normal inbox zero approach. Instead, I cut “do” from the list. Anything that will take more than a simple delete, file, or return email doesn’t get done that day. Period.

This has resulted in a remarkable increase in my ability to write, which is important, because I ended up with 6+ datasets that needed writing up. Changing my approach this year has resulted in a dramatic change, going from 1-2 publications per year up to 5 articles and chapters currently in press and 3 under review. And I still have 4 datasets to go!

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. August 7, 2014

    I’m a fan of Inbox Zero and use a two-folder approach: Action & Archive. I previously created folders for every project I worked on and kept email content organized that way. Now that search has become so powerful, I no longer have to do this.

    I’ve also heeded the excellent email advice from the Manager Tools podcasts:
    here are a few more:

  2. Michele Weigle permalink
    August 7, 2014

    I have the same problem. And, it compounds when you’re Graduate Program Director as well as trying to get research done. Love the idea of pause days. Maybe I’ll try it out during my research leave in the Fall. =)

  3. Andy D permalink
    August 13, 2014

    Configure a small scheduled task which sends you an email once per week, saying “go do one day of research”.

  4. Akash permalink
    September 24, 2014

    Read Getting Things Done by David Allen. It is a comprehensive approach to managing all the to do’s in your life. Inbox zero is one component of GTD.

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