Problems vs. Solutions: inbox zero

Recently the topic of inbox zero came up with a couple clients.

One was discouraged that her attempts at inbox zero had failed. She consistently ended the day with multiple emails remaining in her inbox.

Another client was ending each day with zero emails in her inbox, but this wasn’t making her feel more organized as she’d hoped.

Inbox zero: A rigorous approach to email management aimed at keeping the inbox empty—or almost empty at all times.

Both clients said they “struggle to stay organized and on top of things”. But this mostly turns out to be untrue. In reality, both are actually hyper-organized and successful.

So what’s the disconnect between how they describe themselves and reality? And why isn’t inbox zero working for them?

It turns out their “struggle to stay organized” is really lack of clarity about what’s essential.

Which is why I think inbox zero is a bad measuring stick for staying organized or essentialism.

These clients aren’t truly struggling to bring organization to their inbox. They’re struggling to discern what’s important and not. What deserves their attention, time and energy—and what doesn’t.

Let’s look at the difference.

If you think the goal of “staying on top of things” is to reach a daily state of inbox zero, then 10 emails remaining at the end of the day feels like failure. These 10 emails translate to: I just can’t keep up.

But what if the real issue has nothing to do with zero emails in your inbox and everything to do with spending your time on only what’s essential?

Don’t underestimate this distinction: Dealing with every email versus only dealing with what’s essential. It changes everything.

With this new paradigm, your only goal is to be able to easily spot what’s essential in your inbox.

The real world

OK, so how does an essential versus “staying on top of things” approach to your inbox work in the real world? Well, first you have to know what’s essential (a little on the nose, right?)

Bear with me though. Because many (as in nearly all) my clients struggle mightily with what’s essential. It’s easy to bandy about the concept of essentialism, but much more elusive to actually practice.

Getting clear about what’s truly essential, whether in business or in life, means making choices—and sometimes very difficult choices.

Not everything can be essential.

Essentialism is about having a clear priority, which means once you figure out what’s essential, there’ll be a whole lot that’s not.

This is where most of us run into trouble. We want to declare a priority, but then somehow still fit everything else in.

That’s not essentialism. That’s guaranteed overwhelm.

Let’s say as a solopreneur your priority for the remainder of the year is to solidify your internal processes and procedures. To date your internal structures have been haphazard and inefficient. You’ve decided it’s essential to address these gaps.

If internal operations is your “essential-now”, that makes it of highest importance and something given special attention. Which means everything else is of lesser importance—at least for now.

So when you open your inbox to find two dozen emails, they aren’t all of equal importance. Instead, you’re focused on the four emails related to operations—your essential-now.

Here’s what gets your attention:

  • Reply from MailChimp answering your query about email automation
  • Price quote for upgrading your LeadPages account
  • Process document from one of your freelance contractors
  • Ideas from your accountant for streamlining how you capture expenses

When it comes to your inbox, these 4 emails are your priority. If these 4 are handled, you’re on top of your inbox because you’ve given attention, time, and energy to what’s essential.

What’s your essential-now? And are you giving it your full attention, adequate time, and best energy?

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week: Yeah, but I can’t ignore the rest of my emails.