Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox

Along the lines of The 501 Method is another simple technique I use to keep myself organize. This one actually does have a name: it's the Zero-Tolerance Inbox.

The basic idea is really part of the fundamental principles of Getting Things Done, but I find GTD a little "heavy" for my daily use. I just try to focus on a couple of very basic techniques and implement them with as much discipline as I can muster.

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox is primary among these.

By Zero-Tolerance I mean that I allow nothing to remain in my inbox. I am not happy unless my inbox is empty, and I do whatever I can responsibly do to get everything that arrives in my inbox out of my inbox as quickly as possible.

Most emails that arrive are signals of some sort -- telling me that an action has been completed. For the most part, these emails can be immediately deleted. Once I know the action has been completed, there's usually no call for me to be involved anymore, so I scan these emails, look for anything out of place, and delete. Simple.

Some emails are requests for action. These have to be either done immediately or moved to whatever the action management system is.

(I sure like the idea of an Action Management System. It sounds like something that organizes car chases or something. Anyway.)

Most software shops have an issue management system, or a bug tracking system, or whatever. Emails asking me to get something like that done (bug reports, requests for data, angry denunciations of our interface design) need to get put into that system and tracked there. Again, simple and quick to do.

For my personal life, I have a very simple To-Do list using 37 Signals' awesome Backpack tool. So if I get an email from someone that describes a thing I decide I need to do, I add an item to my to-do list and delete the email.

Some emails are requests for information. These are often the most effort, but often the truth is that somebody else is better-informed than I (actually, that's pretty much ALWAYS the truth), and so I can dispatch the request to them and again, delete. Sometimes the better-informed person is not quite so available and in these cases I actually have to do some work. You'll note all the previous examples mostly allow me to avoid doing any work whatsoever. Not doing any work is key to getting lots done. Be lazy!

That covers probably 99% of the emails I receive. The remaining 1% are weird things like "I was thinking we should reorganize the company so that we can start selling soft-serve ice cream from the QA department. What do you think about that?"

Or, in other words, emails from the executives. For the most part, these can be safely ignored.

The key, like that of the 501 Method, is to avoid making things easy for yourself in the short term. Embrace the short-term pain of dealing with each and every item the moment it arrives. The Zero-Tolerance Inbox is a way of refusing to allow work to pile up just because you don't know what to do with it. If you don't know, this method forces you to find out. Enjoy it. Make a game out of it.

I mean, not Grand Theft Auto or anything. More like pinochle.

Photo: Dan Mulligan