Our blog posts and other discussions on the web mention two approaches for inbox management, described by two related but distinct terms: cleaning versus emptying your inbox. The essential difference is that inbox cleaning doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of emails in your inbox to zero. “Isn’t that a bad thing?” you may ask, “it sounds like giving up before the work is done.”
Well, I don’t think so. To show why, I’m going to share part of my own inbox management routines with you. Actually I have several approaches for doing this, but the one I want to concentrate on today is the unstructured approach, which I fall back to when I’m very busy and don’t have time and patience for a structured and highly disciplined approach. The image I often use for this approach is the “Inbox as a Radar Screen”.
On a closer look, the image fits the inbox marvellously well. The dots on the screen are the emails in my inbox. They can be anything, any object big enough to reflect the waves will show up on the radar. And they are approaching. Of course they are: most items in the inbox have some sort of deadline attached to them, and these are approaching all the time. And what about the beam? The beam is what I do every time I look at my inbox, which is far too often according to best practices. Reading my email only once a day? I don’t think so. Introducing “email free days” once per week, as certain people argue? How would the captain of a submarine cruising the Persian Gulf react if you suggest him to turn off the radar, ‘because it’s Friday’? As in many cases, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but a simplistic approach ignoring emails systematically during certain periods doesn’t work for me.
So the beam turns and I scan my inbox –regularly. The number of bleeps is an indication of how busy I am and as long as there are not too many, I maintain the balance between knowing what’s happening and the inconveniences of being interrupted and the stress levels that go with it. I won’t say I’m doing fine, because the radar screen (my inbox) is just a projection after all. Whether I’m doing fine or not depends not on the inbox, but on the type and number of things that are happening in my professional life.
To maintain the balance, making sure that the radar screen doesn’t get swamped is essential. So I clean up my inbox, which is the easiest thing in the world because of Tagwolf, and I aim for a threshold (I don’t know its absolute value, but it’s somewhere between 50 and 100 emails). If the number of emails in my inbox is below that threshold, the radar works fine and gives an accurate image of my professional activity. If the number is higher, I start getting lost. Aiming for a number significantly lower is too ambitious and would feel awkward, because an empty radar screen is almost suspicious.
Question: Do you go for an empty inbox and manage to stay away from your email application for longer periods of time?