There’s one bad habit that most people have (myself included) that leads to
an overflowing inbox.
There’s one good habit that, if adopted, can reduce the clutter
dramatically. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this one technique,
if adopted religiously, can reduce the size of your currently unmanaged inbox
by as much as 80%.
I’ll call it “plowing through” but that doesn’t do it justice because
there’s actually rationale and logic behind it. Others refer to it as “just do
it”; a take-off on the old Nike slogan.
The bad habit is this: as we scan through our email each day we read a newly
arrived message and then frequently decide “oh, I don’t want to deal with this
now” and move on to the next.
Over and over and over.
Oh, sure, every so often we act on one, but by and large that first scan is
nothing more than an extended procrastination session. You don’t want to deal
with it now, so you’ll deal with it later. And of course later never comes.
The result? An inbox overflowing with email you need to deal with
That’s a really bad habit. It’s a daily process of digging a hole
you’ll never get out of.
So what’s an alternative?
Well, we can’t act on every message as they come in – “first in first out”
may keep your inbox empty, but it doesn’t account for any number of things that
legitimately make some messages more difficult and time consuming to deal
So, we’ll shoot for an 80/20 tradeoff. One new, good habit that if applied
consistently is likely to be able to deal with 80% of the email you get every
The Two Minute Rule
Not long ago I read the book GettingThings Done by David Allen. One of the nuggets I walked away with was what
he calls the “2 minute rule”. It’s the cornerstone of what I call “Plowing
Through” your inbox.
It works like this: as you read your email, if it will take 2 minutes or
less to act on it and thus be able to dispose of the message, then DO
IT. Stop, right then, right there, before you move on to the
next message and do whatever it is that the email is calling for you to do –
whether or not you “feel like it”. Use the 2 minute rule as motivation to get
that message dealt with and gone.
Be brutal. If you know you’re never going to do anything in
response to the message, then delete it, or file it in a different folder,
right then. Be honest with yourself. Deleting a message takes
significantly less than 2 minutes.
Be responsive. If a message calls for a quick reply, then reply
right then, before moving on to the next message. A short response
need not take a lot of time.
Be efficient. Many messages actually don’t require a response;
certainly no response is both
quicker and easier than even the shortest reply.
Be realistic. Don’t get wrapped up in spam, delete it and just quickly
and calmly move on.
And yes, of course if the message is going to take some time to deal with
then leave it or file it in an appropriate folder for future action. Perhaps
the message requires you to do some related work, take some time to respond to
it, or is somehow something that will simply require an investment of over two
minutes on your part. Fine. But I’m guessing the vast majority of what you
receive every day can be dealt with in under 2 minutes each.
It really is that simple.
The theory behind the two minute rule is simply this: for any message you
don’t immediately act on, you will spend on average at least a total
of two minutes in the coming days, weeks or months simply re-encountering that
message over and over again, and re-deciding each time “oh, I don’t want to (or
can’t) deal with this now.”
You can debate the specific number, though I tend to agree with it and
strongly recommend that you use it at least as a place to start.
The key to the plowing through technique is consistency. Yes, “just do it”.
Don’t let email accumulate only to suck more of your time later.
Use “plowing through” as a motivator to turn “I don’t want to deal with this
now” into “this’ll be quick, let me get rid of it right now.”
You’ll achieve a sense of accomplishment, and what’s left will be
your most important messages that by definition you’ve already identified as
being worthy of more of your time.
Yep, this is how we tame 80% of the beast that is email: one message at a