About a month ago I started to feel burnout settling in. It’d been over 3 years since I started working on “Virtual Zeta,” the first iteration of what Zirtual would eventually become, and each day I felt like I was just keeping my head above water.
It wasn’t that things were going poorly; of course, like any early stage business we had our challenges—but I had an amazing full-time team of nearly 30 and hundreds of ZA’s who “bleed Zirtual blue.” I knew I should feel excited to start working each morning instead of dreading the initial boot up of my Mac.
Then it hit me.
It wasn’t work or interactions with my team or even the late hours that I was dreading… it was keeping up with the beast that had become my inbox.
Reactionary versus proactive work
From the moment I woke up in the morning until late in the evening, I was checking my email inbox. If it wasn’t on my computer, it was on my phone or mini iPad—and, of course, something was always “urgent.”
I’d say I was getting 100+ emails per day that required some sort of action. I had already religiously filtered out spam, unsubscribed from newsletters, and removed my social media feed from forwarding to my inbox.
Still, I was constantly skimming emails, hopping from one thread to another, and it was killing me. By the end of the day, I was lucky if I had gotten it back to the size I’d found it that morning, pushing important things to the next day because I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Finally, as I started to feel the burn-out set in, I realized I had to do something about my reactionary inbox habits—so I started studying how to be more efficient versus carving out more time to devote to emails. Thus, switching from reactivity to proactivity.
I spent a weekend and researched how to get started. I didn’t check my inbox for the entire 48 hours, and I could already feel my life changing. Here are some of my findings:
Your best creative work is often done in the morning; thus spending the early hours responding to email is a poor use of that time.
Parkinson’s Law is true for email as well: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
It’s all about managing your energy, not your time (excellent lecture on that here).
I’d also highly recommend you read Ray Dalio’s “Principles”; it’s 150 pages of very applicable advice on creating routines and becoming disciplined to find success in all aspects of business. Its author has a current net worth of over 10 billion and has built a hedge fund renown for its amazing culture—which is probably more impressive than his massive financial success.
Jump to present day. It’s 10:03 am, and I’ve been up since 7. I had a leisurely coffee at my favorite NYC cafe near my apartment, read a bit of news, and watched the passersby. Granted, there is something magical about working east coast hours when the majority of your team is on the west coast (it’s like gaining 3 free hours every morning!). But that wasn’t the reason I am so relaxed.
I’m relaxed because for the last 3 weeks I’ve been sticking to a strict Monday through Friday routine. From the moment I wake up until noon, I am absolutely forbidden to check my inbox. That 3 to 4 hours is carved out for creative time, which I use to work on important projects within Zirtual, write, and brainstorm future strategies.
Around noon I check my inbox; this usually takes an hour, and if it goes over 60 minutes I log out and can’t check it again until 5pm, where I spend another 1-2 hours clearing my inbox down to zero.
This has literally changed my life. I wake up excited to work on creative projects that actually affect how we do business, as well as our team and clients’ lives. By noon, I have drained my proactive resources and am ready to tackle the day—email style.
Part of the trick of only checking your inbox at set times each day, is being super efficient when you’re actually in your email—that means no doddering! The way to achieve this epic goal is to treat your virtual email inbox, like your real life mailbox.
No one goes to check their mail, rummages through the letters, tears into a few and puts the ones they don’t want to deal with—back in the mailbox. But, this is exactly what we do with our email.
If you want to dig deep into the psyche behind highly optimized organization, read GTD, it’s a tough read—but well worth it and lays a solid foundation for leading an structured business life. Or you can just set aside two, 1-2 hour chunks each day, and swear that you will do nothing but go through email, organize it into “waiting on”, “actionable” and “delegate” piles (or google docs), then close out.
I do this at noon, and 5pm, sometimes—rarely—I will break this rule if I know there is a specific email I have to get to asap. But, this is the exception more than the rule. Everyone within Zirtual now knows that if they need something from me asap, they should call or text, which pleasantly people rarely do.
Now it’s not that work has gotten less busy, instead, it’s upped the bar for people sending things my way. They know that if they want an immediate answer, it better be important, and often I believe they figure it out for themselves instead.
But don’t take my word for it, a lot of people far smarter than I have wrote extensively on inbox zero here.