Escaping the Email Vortex: Practical Advice for Getting Your Inbox to Zero


Photo credit: Ed Mitchell

Most working professionals  complain about the volume of email they receive each day.  What they don’t know is that they have their eyes on the wrong target, and instead should shift their attention to the time demands buried in electronic messages.

To explain, let’s start with a definition of a “time demand,” which is nothing more than a mental, individual commitment to accomplish a task in the future.  It’s a peculiar invention of the human imagination, and has some distinct characteristics.  A time demand is:

  • created in the mind of the person making the commitment
  • automatically assigned a likely duration, and starting time
  • something that disappears when the task is completed
  • the cause of stress when too many of them are carried in one’s memory

Email, phone calls, text messages. physical letters, action items in meetings and tweets are just some of the carriers of time demands. We process these pieces of content, and as we’re doing so we create time demands.  The more content we process, the more time demands we are likely to create:

The average person in the year 1750 saw as much information in their entire lifetime as one sees in a typical Sunday New York Times.

However, the problem isn’t as simple as cutting back the number of emails received each day, or the number of pages read on one’s Kindle.  After all, we two hundred emails in a day might only result in 1or 2 time demands that require 15 minutes to complete.  In like manner,  3 emails could result in hundreds of time demands spanning several months.  The problem isn’t in the volume of messages we receive, but their contents, and how to process them.

Given that fact, it’s not hard to see that the modern workplace has progressed tremendously since the widespread adaptation of email in the 1990’s.  Back then, time demands were transmitted in two ways:  through real-time conversations and via paper memos.  Today, in addition to these two channels, the average working professional must also master a number of others, such as text messages, email, social networking updates, instant messages and voice-mails.

Also, we must all must deal with the fact that our access to these channels has shifted.  In a smartphone world, access to them has become a 24 hour per day, 7 day a week phenomena, rather than one that is restricted to “working hours.”  (In fact, the very concept of “working hours” is fast receding due to the fact that the work of processing time demands never seems to stop.)

When we forget that we are looking for time demands within incoming messages, we often learn the bad habit of “skimming.”  Instead of dealing with each message once before dispensing with them, we take a quick look and then decide to take action “later,” before moving to the next message.  In no time, we end up with inboxes that are overflowing with time demands that we have put off until some time in the future.

These time demands prey on our minds, and make us feel overburdened as we realize that we’re not very good at remembering the exact nature of each item.  We feel stressed when we realize that some are falling through the cracks as our memory fails.

Thankfully, there are better techniques available. Our research shows that it’s better to switch to keeping lists, once the number of time demands exceeds a certain threshold.  This works for a while, until another threshold is reached, and at that point it’s necessary to switch to keeping a single, electronic calendar.

We don’t know that a hard and fast rule exists about when these upgrades must happen, as they depend a great deal on the user.  Our coaching is simple:  make the upgrade when you sense that your peace of mind begins to suffer by trying to mentally keep track of too many time demands.

When possible, process emails immediately. Make it a routine to archive and delete messages once a week, perhaps during your weekly review (for those who are fans of GTD).

Focusing on time demands, and their effect on our peace of mind, is the best way to make these changes, and to avoid making the mistake of focusing too narrowly on email volumes.

Francis Wade is a proponent of Time Management 2.0, and writes for several newspapers, as well as his research website: He is @fwade on twitter and can be found on our productivity resources twitter list.

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