How I Declared E-Mail Bankruptcy, and Discovered the Bliss of an Empty Inbox

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personally coach me through some of the techniques he lays out in his book. (If I’d taken him up on the offer, I probably would have found time to write a few books of my own by now.)

I found my copy of Bit Literacy and went to the chapter on managing incoming e-mail, which Mark believes is the first step toward overcoming the stress created by all those digital bits hanging over our heads all day long. “Bits are heavy,” Mark writes. They “weigh people down, mentally and emotionally, with incessant calls for attention and engagement.” The chapter’s basic commandment is simple: get your e-mail inbox down to zero messages at least once every work day, no matter what.

To do that, Mark recommends following a few rules. First, he suggests responding immediately to e-mail from your family and friends, who, after all, matter most in your life. Second, he urges people to trash all spam and “FYI” e-mails. For each work-related e-mail, he advises dealing with it—if this can be done in two minutes or less (a practice borrowed from the original Getting Things Done guru, David Allen). All the remaining e-mails that can’t be handled in two minutes or less should be turned into to-do items on task lists and saved for later. In every case, once you’ve dealt with a message, you delete or archive it.

The task-list step can be tricky. Not from a technical point of view—there are plenty of good Web-based to-do lists, including Gootodo and the new Tasks feature in Gmail itself. Plus, there’s always the good old index card (aka the Hipster PDA, the brainchild of Merlin Mann, publisher of the wonderful personal-productivity site 43 Folders). The issue is that if you’re going to start storing important to-dos on a task list, you have to be disciplined about actually doing some of them. Otherwise, you’re just moving bits around. And sadly, if you allowed your inbox to bloat to 15,000 messages in the first place, it might be a sign that you lack such discipline.

I am happy to report, however, that I’ve been able to zero out my inbox every day since my e-mail bankruptcy, except for one day when I let myself off the hook after a breaking news story necessitated one of those 16-hour work marathons. And my task list hasn’t grown too long in the process—right now there are only 13 items on it. Even if I have to resort to clipped, elusive responses like “Let’s nail that down next week” in order to dispose of some of my messages, the new method means I get to go home after work feeling like my evenings belong to me, not to Gmail.

So, Stever and Mark—and all of the time-management experts on whose shoulders you stand—a big thank you. You have made me a free man. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 48 messages waiting in my inbox.

Update, March 5, 2009 (from the Imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery Department): Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times has published a nice column describing his own variation on declaring e-mail bankruptcy. Empty is the “optimal state” for your inbox, he writes. “Your goal, from now on, will be to keep this space as pristine as possible, either empty or nearly so. To realize that goal, live by this precept: Whenever you receive a new message, do something with it. Don’t read your e-mail and then just let it sit there—that’s a recipe for chaos.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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