Inbox Zero: Merlin Mann's Google Tech Talk

Merlin Mann, from 43 folders, gave an interesting Google Tech Talk titled "Inbox Zero". Merlin asked to share the video with you. Here you are!

I'll give a (short) summary of the talk, but please block an hour and sit back, learn and apply. It worked for me, although most of it can also be read in David Allen's, "Getting things done" (GTD) - which is very worth the read. I apply it to my daily work and it helped me be more productive.

Here goes the summary:
Email was like a little hug I (Merlin) was giving people a hug and getting hugs from people.

But it didn’t always stay that way.

Email became the one source for all incoming and outgoing information. You didn’t need a system to handle email. Now you do. A simple and complete framework how to deal with your email. More and more people live in their email. They do everything in there (for practical purposes). They have their system in there. That is not a way to live, according to Mann. You should have a system outside email to cope with email.

As a knowledge worker the two most precious things you have are you time and attention. They are finite (it fits in “a box”) and irreplaceable. Multitasking is a myth, according to Merlin.

Use walls. Have a healthy relationship with your email. Make decisions about how your time and attention are related to email.

Manage attention. If you’re managing attention your making sure that your time and attention are always mapping to the things that you claim are important. This implies that you could be spending less time on email.

Merlin takes a lot of ideas from David Allen’s "Getting things done" (which is “Advanced common sense”). The problem is we don’t always do the obvious.

Email is a medium. It’s not where the action is. I have a question here though: I agree with the fact that the action is not in email. But could we put the action there? If email is the core tool of a knowledge worker, shouldn't more tools integrate with email? E.g. why can't I just write a document in my email? Or the other way around: why can't I just write a document in Word and decide that I want to send the content as an email? (Note: I don't mean attaching the document to an email!)

Summary continued:

There’s a single place for anything. Note by Samuel: my first thought was this contradicts what we see in practice and for instance what Weinberger says. However, Merlin actually implies something else, see point 1!

Process to zero. That’s more than checking. And less than responding. It’s: so what do I with it?

Convert everything to actions.

What can happen to an email?:

  1. Delete (or Archive = a single folder! It’s not the 24 folder system. Don’t spend the time of sorting out where to archive it.)
  2. Delegate (but use 'waiting for' to track it)
  3. Respond (quick and short responses, 5 sentences?)
  4. Defer (this is tricky, stuff you will need later or deal with later, e.g. put it in a to-respond folder, leave the inbox for what you have not read/processed)
  5. Do (it now! or capture a placeholder for that action, e.g. your calendar, don’t decide what you do for the day by looking at your inbox. Keep a tasklist.) Note: I agree with the tasklist! I use one since I read "Getting things done", with categories (action, waiting for, call, etc) and it really works and keeps me (more) focused.

Always choose one of the above!

Tweak this to your own work habits. But make a sound, complete system. Make it a habit, do it and you will see great differences.

Other tips: don’t leave your email open all the time. Don’t turn on the auto-check. Set up a check email schedule. You’ll learn that a lot of email is less urgent, than you thought. Check it and get back to work.

Use email templates. Note and question: I don’t use them. Anyone got examples of use? Merlin’s example sounded difficult… (at 29:00) Merlin suggested of thinking about email responses you write a lot. I’ll try that, but where do you save the templates? In your email?

If you do this well, it becomes more like 1993… (when Merlin got his first email account and felt sending and receiving an email was like a hug).

Merlin also took questions:

One question was about expectances: depends on your team or on who evaluates you. Work it out! Talk about it with your colleagues and agree upon the way you use email.

He also comments GTD tools: usually they focus to much on the tool as the solution but it's not. You have to have the system first. If you use a tool to support the system it should be seamless, easily to change modes and easy to use.

Also talks about the processing the pile of email when you get back from vacation.

Wow, (at 55:00) a Google lady told that they have David Allen come to Google regularly to give 'Getting things done' courses!

End of summary.

The slides of the Tech Talk can be found here.


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