Richard Kingston

Why I won't close my inbox again

Posted Feb 27, 2018

Not so long ago I wrote about how I closed my inbox for a week in an attempt to take back control of some of my time. I was inefficiently spending way too much of it dealing with a backlog of emails after holidays, rather than getting things done, as I saw it. I had a great response to that post and I understand that my employers are even now having conversations about how something similar could be used to benefit all staff in the future - which is great! Also, our arms lengths housing management organisation have taken an interest too.

On reflection though it was a pretty extreme thing to do and here’s the kicker… it’s probably not something I’ll do again. There’s no denying that the results were excellent. They certainly highlighted one or two issues. But I am really very conscious of the impact it could have potentially had on my colleagues - in particular those trusted friends who just wanted to make sure I was aware of something, only for me to turn around and effectively say “I’m on holiday so I don’t care - talk to me later”. Of course that’s not what I was saying, and I certainly don’t want them to think that, but the situation could oh so easily be misunderstood and taken out of context.

The whole point of course was to avoid coming back to work and drowning in emails. It was to try and skip happily past the feelings of anxiety that having an overloaded inbox brings - knowing that each and every message is a demand on your time over and above the other demands of meetings having been booked, phone calls coming in, text messages alerting, voicemails waiting, office conversations starting up and… oh yeah… the list of tasks your actually supposed to be doing!

But my personal worries and concerns about those things are not my colleagues’ problem. By closing my inbox in the way I did, I was asking them to hold onto their emails while I got back - which pretty much just pushed the issue out. There were still the same number of emails to be sent, it’s just that now they were scattered amongst those waiting to send them rather than sat in my inbox waiting to be read. Or worse, they just thought “nuts to him” and deleted them. In the end, they were just dealing with the issue instead of me.

But all is not lost, because while that idea in itself might not be something to pursue over the longer term, it did lead to some other options that I’ve been able to test recently and that have proven to be much more successful.

Having published the results of my experiment as I did, Ann O’Flynn introduced me to the idea of splitting my inbox - something that Scott Hanselman of Microsoft has blogged about and that is apparently a common practice amongst Chief Executives of larger corporations who often have over-inflated mailboxes. It’s a very simple idea that can be implemented without anyone even knowing and I can honestly say that my inbox is now only ever a few messages deep. My CC subfolder instead fills up almost invisibly until I choose to look at it and when I do, it’s like reading the Facebook news feed - I can skip from one message to the next taking note of what’s said, but without having to take any action on anything. I’m only CC’d for my information. I’m not being asked to react.

I also stumbled across this little nugget of wisdom from Matt Watson. This gem came just after I’d spent a day working from home and struggled to get anything done. I was trying to write a business case but I literally moved from dealing with an email, to taking a phone call, to being invited into a Skype video chat, to answering a WhatsApp group message, to getting a text alert and that continued all day. I never did write a single word into that business case. My mobile was beeping, my computer was sounding and I just couldn’t get on top. Matt’s suggested approach has since entirely solved that for me, but I do need to be more disciplined about when I choose to read messages - I’m still checking them far too regularly.

Both of these changes have had a huge effect over the last week or so, so much so that I won’t need to close my inbox in future. Instead, I’ll have a clear seperation of emails I must act on and those I just need to take note of. I won’t feel the pressure of having a huge list of messages to deal with anymore. I won’t be constantly prompted to look at new ones as they arrive, rather I’ll choose when to look, when it suits me, when the work I’m doing allows for a break point and when I can focus on them properly.

Ultimately, that’s what this is all about. Being able to manage my time effectively. Being able to do my job while still supporting others to do theirs. I have realised that more often than not I’m supporting others first (replying to their emails, attending their meetings, answering their chats, etc.) and carrying out my own tasks second when I can fit them in. The danger there of course is that my tasks end up neglected. I need to switch around my primary focus such that I can still support others, but in a much more effective way whilst getting my own work done too - avoiding being pulled from pillar to post and suffering from constant context switching which is the mother of all productivity sappers in my opinion (that’s something I’ll blog about later).

So, long story short I won’t be closing my email inbox again. It will remain open for business. But I will be filtering emails and I will be switching off notifications for everyones benefit. I will be looking at how I accept meeting bookings and I’ll be considering how I break up my week to make sure I can focus on things properly and be more effective overall.