From Unread to Inbox Zero: Thoughts on Workflow Management

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inbox-zero In 1995, I typed my first electronic mail (email) when I started as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. I was using Pine, a freeware and text-based email client which was simple and intuitive that allowed me to communicate from Singapore to the rest of the world via the Internet.

As time goes on,email become the way to how we communicate with each other, not just in leisure but also in work. We have often heard about the investment bankers, consultants and lawyers totally glued to their blackberries and now iPhones and Android phones. As a communication tool meant to make our lives more productive, we are inundated with messages that comes in different forms from an immediate task to a complex discussion which might involve debate & decision making.

Learning to manage my email from work to personal over the years taught me some lessons about workflow management, and there are implications to how I view execution and decision making processes. On a broader note, the management of your workflow is very similar to solving a set of problems with prioritisation fixed on what deems to be the most to the least important. In retrospect, problems come in different shapes and sizes. In some situations, the problem is a straight forward one and requires immediate urgency & action and in others, requires deliberate thought and gather more options out there towards a decision.

Going to Unread Zero for My Emails

Sometime around working towards my doctoral thesis, I discovered that I have too many unread emails on my inbox, mainly stemming from procrastination and laziness. As I was organising the table of contents and summary to my thesis, it dawned on me that I should organise my professional life properly and the first step is to fine-tune the workflow management around my life.

Over a few days after the submission of my thesis, I put an extraordinary amount of effort to go through my inbox for both my work and personal emails and ensured that I have reached the “unread zero” mode. What does that mean? It means that I have looked through all my emails, and immediately deleting irrelevant emails, organising some of them for response and at the same time, reporting spam and junk emails to the email server. I took a merciless view towards people who sent me unsolicited emails and sent them to the trash or spam folder. Recently, I have allowed some of these for my own research to how the best websites are successful in user engagement and retention. Otherwise, I have tasked myself to reach “unread zero” in the beginning, the middle and the end of my daily activities.

Of course, by taking my emails to “unread zero”, it gives me extra time to work on tasks from responding to emails. Some of my colleagues commented about my execution speed and my willingness to go through extra hoops to get their stuff done. By keeping all mails read, I am able to put pressure on myself to get things done and at the same time, be aware of the things happening around me.


Finally Inbox Zero

Yet, reaching “unread zero” is just the first step. It only helps me to operationally efficient and productive, but does not enable me to take the next step. If you become responsible for more people and require the capacity to make difficult decisions pertaining to business, then “unread zero” is not good enough. To step up as a manager as well as an operator, you need one more step and that is to be “inbox zero” coined by Merlin Mann, co-founder of Inspired by David Allen’s time management book, “Getting Things Done”, he breaks down five actions upon receipt of email: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do.

My purpose of reaching “inbox zero” is slightly different from what Merlin Mann has in mind. Of course, there are other prescriptions that differ from his approach. The key reason to reach inbox zero for me is to retain the ability to execute accurately and focus on solutions to everyday’s problems (including those at work) and expand the capability to focus and think about the big picture, be it figuring out a new business or a complex problem which captured my insatiable thirst to solve.

Having some free time after an excruciating week at work, I made up my mind and took 3 hours after work to organize my GMail account (which comprised a mix of personal, work and special projects that I am passionate about) from 12,000 to 0. Reaching inbox zero also means that I can organize actions around all my emails and respond to the best of my ability. I do not doubt that unforeseen and unexpected circumstances would occasionally trip me up on reaching “inbox zero” everyday. The whole exercise forced me to be focussed & disciplined in how I take on challenges in the next few decades ahead.

Note: I have originally published this post in Medium.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist