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The quest for Inbox Zero

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One of the greatest obstacles to productivity, communications and the secret of happiness is an e-mail inbox that just won’t reach empty. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK has a few tips on how to get there.

It’s the new holy grail of personal effectiveness and business productivity: an empty inbox in your e-mail.

I know it sounds like a fantasy, and perhaps even smacks of the supernatural. But it exists. I’ve seen it twice in the past decade. The first time, around 2004, it brought such a sense of freedom that I neglected my e-mail for a few days, and never caught up again. Until last week.

As any productivity expert will tell you, an empty inbox is not only good for effectiveness, but also time management and quality of life and work. And I can now also reveal that it comes with an irresistible urge to pop a cork or bend an elbow in a toast to rare triumphs.

How did I do it? The experts propose any number of tips and tricks. All of them are as useless as the abs-building advice in health magazines that assume you have a fully-equipped gym lurking in a corner of your home.

How do you automatically filter mail when you don’t know what mail will come in? How do you create a ‚list of important people‚ when you have no idea who might send an important e-mail next? And sensible people tend to avoid putting ‚URGENT‚ In the subject line of their mails, so you can’t use that as a filter either.

The real secret is time management. And the secret of time management, in turn, is focus. The problem there, of course, is that very few of us are able to award our full attention to one single task to the exclusion of all other.

A colleague gave me a simple piece of advice: take the office phone off the hook, put the cellphone on silent, shut the door, close all browsers and extraneous documents, and start. It doesn’t matter if you start with the oldest or the newest, as long as you begin to work through the pile in a systematic way.

I confess I didn’t do it all in one session. It took a few days of ‚zero time‚ – my term for a period in which zero outside interruptions may intrude, and the only goal is to bring the number of items in the inbox to zero.

Okay, if you insist on a few tips and tricks, try these samples:

The first key to my e-mail life has been getting rid of spam. I use Google’s mail server (Gmail.com) as my mail filter, and it has eliminated 90% of my spam. False positives, the industry term for genuine e-mail rejected as spam, are almost non-existent here.

Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, suggests cutting down on newsletters, but selectively: if it’s not helpful or enjoyable, don’t subscribe to it. Don’t even pay attention to it.

Merlin Mann, who is credited with coining the term Inbox Zero in a series of articles and a talk of the same name (you can watch it on YouTube), recommends you work methodically through your e-mail mound, not moving on until you’ve made one of five choices for each item: Delete (or Archive), Delegate, Respond, Defer, Do.

It does help to start by going through the mail you can instantly delete or archive. That will reduce the pile and make it seem less imposing. But it won’t address all the urgent mails waiting for your ‚To do‚ attention. For that, focus is the only trick. If you can’t focus, inbox zero will remain a fantasy.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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