Two days ago, I got my email inbox down to zero, for the first time in at least 18 months. Several times in the last few months, I had gotten down to 40 lagging emails, but never to zero. The story of my getting to zero is a case study in how a change in attitude then enables a change in the process, which then leads to success.
As background, you need to know that for years I have battled email. I would complain about how many there were. I spent hours beating down the numbers. I implemented fancy rules for pre-sorting email to folders so I could ignore things if I didn’t have time. I upgraded my spam filter. And still, the email that I wanted to respond to would pile up and hang over me.
This year I’ve been experimenting with working on a schedule. Email has been a sore spot. It’s unpredictable, and therefore more difficult to plan. I tried some drastic measures. I decommitted from answering about 100 emails that were over six months old. I accepted that email is less important than intellectual work, which is why I answer it in waves. But I still felt like I was battling email all of the time.
The breakthrough came when my coach helped me see that email is not negative per se, and yet I had been thinking about it as if it were. The truth is that I like connecting with a wide range of people, and email is the ideal way for me to do that. It’s convenient, private, and a central clearinghouse.
This doesn’t mean that answering email is always pleasant. Sometimes I get an email that throws me for a loop. An email I got about ten days ago generated three days of angst before I figured out what was going on. Often I feel bad because I don’t send an answer in as timely a way as I’d wished. Sometimes I answer too quickly and sow confusion and make a faux pas. I made two known faux pas in those 400 emails I cleared the other day. Oops.
In hindsight, I had a bit of a victim mentality regarding email. When I thought about email, I focused on these negatives. It’s always so easy to see these things in hindsight! Switching to treating email as a value (instead of a problem) changed everything. It spurred me to change my process.
You see, I teach in my Do What Matters Most class that to gain a value that takes effort across time, you need to set up a virtuous cycle of motivation. You need to motivate each step by values, and do it such that you gain success. It is your own awareness of success that creates further motivation to keep going. You can’t just rely on willpower to sustain you for long-term effort. Willpower will get you over a hump, but only values will keep you going back to do the hard work, or the boring work, or the finicky work, again and again.
How do you turn a process into a virtuous cycle? You increase awareness of the values at stake. I did this for my email routine by adding processes to track values, escalate awareness, and celebrate success so I could see the value in answering those emails. I’ll explain all three.
If you want to be more aware of the values you are gaining, track the process. In doing email, I had been focused on what hadn’t been done — i.e., how many emails were unfinished. That was always discouraging, because I rarely got to zero. Tracking the work changed that dynamic.
I started keeping a log for email clearing. I work in 25-minute time chunks. At the beginning of a session, I recorded the number of emails in the inbox. When the time was up, I recorded the new inbox size and the number of emails sent during that 25 minutes.
This trivial change made the task much more pleasant. Work immediately became a game. How many emails can I routinely clear in 25 minutes?
If there are areas in any process that feel muddy and negative, you need to turn more attention to them. You need to escalate them so that you can figure out the values at stake.
For example, I mentioned that an email I got ten days ago threw me for a loop. It was an invitation to speak that triggered some mixed feelings. I sent a short thank you and promised an answer shortly, and escalated the issue. I journaled about my mixed feelings. I had a conversation with my husband about the situation. Once I sorted everything out, I saw it was a great opportunity, and sent an enthusiastic acceptance.
That case has a happy ending, but in the past, these kinds of emails could be a problem. I would feel averse to doing email, because I was peripherally aware of some messy issue in there, needing a response. If I didn’t have time to sort out the issues, I resisted getting sucked in.
Fear of getting sucked into an issue has become a more serious problem since I started working on a schedule. An email like this creates a new task, which could take 1, 2 or more hours to complete. And I didn’t ask for it! It comes out of the blue and wasn’t on the schedule! Uh-Oh!
What to do? As I was tracking email a few days ago, I faced this situation directly. I didn’t want to leave email like this in my inbox, because it makes me avoid doing email. But I also didn’t want to blindly act on it without spending some thinking time. Nor did I want to stop to do that thinking in the middle of clearing my email.
Here a little magic occurred. My ten-month experiment with working on a schedule intersected with my current attempt to tame email, and I realized I needed to get these kinds of email out of my inbox and into my project planning process. I needed to escalate the issue so I could decide how much time to spend on it, in the context of my other priorities.
I expanded my time log to include a list of issues that came up. It turns out that in 25 minutes, I can clear about 30-40 emails, with 2-3 items that need to be escalated. Most of the space in the “time log” is used to document the issues that have come up that need more attention. The Uh-Oh Log was born.
It turns out the Uh-Oh Log is also useful for things that come up in conversation that you suddenly need to do. Uh-Oh. When am I going to do that? It’s not on the schedule.
Now when I do my regular daily and weekly planning, I check the Uh-Oh Log to make decisions about how to handle these unexpected items, given the full context of my priorities.
Finally, I knew that part of the problem with email was that I never took any pleasure from it. If you don’t feel the satisfaction from gaining values, they become arid duties. They soon lose their motive power.
I planned to do a mini-celebration at the end of every 25 minute chunk. That turned out to be easy. I was very pleased to see how many emails were cleared, and how few issues were coming up that needed more attention.
But I figured I’d really celebrate when I got to zero.
The honest truth is, I didn’t feel one iota of pleasure when that inbox got to empty. I took a picture for this newsletter, but I felt no thrill, no joy, no satisfaction. Instead, I looked at my desk. It was a mess. I dove into clearing the papers that had accumulated in the past week. I figured I’d celebrate when both the desk and email were at zero.
I got them cleared after dinner. Did I feel a thrill? No. Joy? No. Satisfaction? No. I was thinking about how I hadn’t planned the week, and it was too late in the evening to do it now.
Bing—Bing—Bing—Bing—Bing! An alarm went off in my head.
Obviously, I was in a negative loop, focused on what hadn’t been done, the lack, the deficiencies. If I wanted to create a virtuous cycle, I needed to change gears immediately.
Here is where my commitment to celebrate doing email truly paid off. I did not go to bed. I did not plan the week. I went directly to my journal and spent 25 minutes sorting out my self-critical feelings, giving myself an “empathy bath,” and, by the end, celebrating what I had accomplished. I went to bed in a glow, pleased at the incredible progress I had made that day, and excited to have cleared the decks so I could concentrate on my book the next morning. Which I did.
The moral of this story is: a virtuous cycle does not happen by accident. It requires a constant orientation, and re-orientation, to values. You need to monitor not only your progress, but also your negative feelings, and the lack of positive feelings. You need to be willing to adjust your process in small ways and large ways, to ensure that every step you take reaffirms your values, refuels your motivation, and results in the achievement of your goal.