April 15, 2020
In my last post, I warned that a sudden shift to remote work could inadvertently push knowledge workers into a state of inbox capture, in which essentially all of their time outside of Zoom calls ends up dedicated to sending and receiving email (or Slack messages). As I hinted, I think the best solutions here require radical changes to how these organizations operate. In the short term, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a few ideas about what individuals can do right away to avoid the perils of this state of capture.
It’s important to first bust a popular belief. The key to spending less time in your inbox is not simply to check it less often. This advice is out of date, echoing a simpler time when emails were novel. In recent years, of course, this technology has (unfortunately) become the medium in which most work now unfolds. Ignoring your inbox for long stretches with no other accommodations might seriously impair your organization’s operation.
What’s instead imperative is to move more of this work out of your inbox and into other systems that better support efficient execution. You can’t, in other words, avoid this work, but you can find better alternatives to simply passing messages back and forth in an ad hoc manner throughout the day.
Here are three concrete rules along these lines to help clarify what I mean…
Rule #1: Never schedule a call or meeting using email.
In our current moment in which casual conversations in the hallway or impromptu office visits are impossible, you have to be using meeting scheduling services that allow people to select a time from your list of available times. Use calend.ly, use Acuity, use the features built into Microsoft Outlook, and if you’re setting up a group meeting, use Doodle. But do not let this coordination unfold as a slow back-and-forth exchange of messages, as this is guaranteed to keep you in a state of constant, agitated inbox checking.
Rule #2: Immediately move obligations out of your inbox and into role-specific repositories.
I currently inhabit four professional roles: writer, teacher, researcher, and director of graduate studies for my department. For each of these roles, I set up a Trello board that includes a column for: things I’m working on actively, thing I’m waiting to hear back about from someone else, things on my “back burner” that I’m not yet ready to tackle, and a list of ambiguous or complicated things that I need to spend some time on figuring out. Every email I receive immediately gets moved to one of these columns in one of my Trello boards.
This might seem arbitrary, but it’s actually critical to keeping me away from endless inbox wrangling. It means, among other benefits, that I can focus on one role at a time. For example, when I’m spending time on my role as director of graduate studies, I’m only exposed to information about this role — preventing energy-sapping context shifts. I can see the whole picture of what’s on my plate, and make smart decisions about what I want to work on in the moment.
Seeing the status of my obligations in one place also significantly simplifies the process of consolidating multiple tasks and identifying systems that might make work more efficient in the future (I’m in the process, for example, of launching an FAQ page on our departmental web site that instructs our graduate students how to execute many common activities without needing to send me ambiguous emails).
This approach is an order of magnitude more efficient than instead collapsing all of these obligations into a haphazard jumble piled up in a single undifferentiated inbox.
Rule #3: Hold office hours.
Setup a recurring Zoom meeting for set times every week where you guarantee to be present. As much as possible, when people send you an ambiguous request or initiate a conversation that will require a lot of back and forth, point them toward your office hours schedule and tell them to stop by next time they can to discuss. It’s a simple idea, but it can reduce the number of attention-snagging back-and-forth electronic messages in your professional life by an order of magnitude.
Us professors, of course, have long used this strategy to moderate student interaction into more sustainable patterns that work better for all parties involved. In our current period of widespread remote work, however, this should be much more common. (I actually proposed this idea in a 2016 article I wrote for the Harvard Business Review; it’s also promoted in Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s 2018 book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work).