Email Scandals, Small Law Firms, Technology

Your Inbox Is Out Of Control; Time To Take It Back!

Keith Lee

Email sucks.

Actually, let me clarify that. Email is a fast, open platform that has universal adoption and has changed the world. It’s convenient and probably how 99% of the people reading this conduct their client communications. But email client programs suck. Most of them are horribly designed and have morphed into unwieldy, user-interface nightmares, mostly due to the broken way most people use them.

If you’re like the vast majority of people, your inbox is a source of work. It’s also highly likely that you also treat it as a storage/repository of work. You begin to attempt to organize it. You start flagging things, creating folders, and soon you’re using your inbox as a task management system. Which is horribly inefficient, and not at all what your inbox is designed for. Furthermore, you’ve likely got your email client set to fetch and notify you on some ridiculous schedule, like every five minutes. Meaning that it’s quite possible that you never get more than five minutes into a task before being interrupted!

Stop. Just stop it….

It’s not just lawyers who do this. Everyone does. It’s why Outlook began to add stuff like task lists over the years. It’s why app developers like Mailbox are trying envision new ways to use and interact with inboxes.

The first step in regaining some sanity and control over your inbox is easy: only use your inbox for email. Stop organizing stuff with it. Hell, stop sorting it! Search is incredibly, incredibly powerful now. I haven’t bothered sorting emails in year and can find any email I want within 30 seconds. Once you’ve stopped sorting, you can then move to a task management system. There are all sorts, but personally I’m a fan of the Getting Things Done (GTD) organizational system from the David Allen Company. It breaks your workflow into a flowchart that helps determine how and when work should be done. Essentially it looks like this:

A task appears in one of your buckets (email inbox, physical mail inbox, etc.):

  • What is it? Is it actionable?
  • If not:
    • Trash it.
    • Put it in a reminder file.
    • Or put it in a reference file.
  • If so, what’s the next action?
    • The next action is defined as the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.
  • Will next action take less than 2 minutes?
    • If yes, do it.
    • If no, delegate it or defer it.
    • If it will take longer than 2 minutes, consider it a project (defined as requiring more than one action step) and put it in your project plans/folders, which will be reviewed for actions.

Adopting GTD has helped me streamline my work processes and get more done in less time. It also helps keep your inbox focused solely on what it supposed to be used for: mail. Of course, while GTD is great for getting things done in the immediate future, it doesn’t take the place of some sort of larger project management system. But I’ll save going over project management systems for another post.

The second step is, at least for some periods of the day, turning off every single notification/pop-up/ringer/buzz/alert on any electronic device you possess. I’ve written previously about the necessity of setting aside time for deep work. You have to set aside time if you want to be able to enter into a flow state necessary for accomplishing remarkable work. And while I said it’s likely you don’t get more than five minutes of interrupted work, research shows that it’s likely that you actually get only three minutes!

Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

Read that bold sentence again. After an interruption, it can take up to 23 minutes to actually refocus on the task at hand! It’s unlikely that you’re ever going to get much meaningful work done at that rate. Instead you bounce around and complete bite-sized portions of one task here, and another there. It’s a horribly inefficient manner of conducting your workflow.

If you want to get as much done in as little time as possible, you have to create an environment free from interruption the best you can. Train yourself to focus on the task at hand. And the first step to doing so is to turn off all notifications on your devices so you don’t fall victim to you Pavlovian urge to immediately check the beeps and dings all around you. It will free you to concentrate deeply on the work in front of you.

Over time, the quality of your work product will improve.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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