The approach that works is: “Do the important stuff first.”
The approach that doesn’t work is: “Do everything on your to-do list.”
“Do the important stuff first” is taught, with variations, by Steven Covey and Tony Robbins, among others. Covey, for example, in his huge, perennial best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, arranges activities into four quadrants:
- Important and Urgent.
- Important but Non-Urgent.
- Unimportant and Urgent.
- Unimportant but Non-Urgent
In Covey’s system, effective time managers do tasks in that exact order, with the understanding that it’s if you never get to the unimportant stuff (even if it’s urgent), you’re managing your time well.
Robbins’s RPM time management system tweaks that model to give priority to “Important but Non-urgent” tasks because such tasks usually the highest return on your time investment. Like Covey, though, Robbins encourages you to you ignore unimportant tasks.
Both Covey’s and Robbins’s methods put YOU in control of how you spend your time rather than letting others determine how you spend your time.
By contrast, “Do everything on your to-do list” forces you to structure your time based upon what is important to other people, in whatever order those tasks happened to arrive. Rather than being in control of your time, you’re at the mercy of everyone else’s priorities.
The time management “experts” (and I use that term loosely) who promote the “do everything on your to-do list” approach promote ideas on how to get through that to-do list more quickly (rather than taking control of what’s important.)
And that’s where this goofy “zero inbox” stuff is coming from. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s the idea that you should strive to clear out your email inbox every day (down to zero messages) by either acting, delegating or deleting every email.
In other words, “zero inbox” puts your valuable time and mental energy at the mercy of every idiot who sends you an email. As a reward, you get the satisfaction of having no messages in your inbox… for 30 seconds.
Why in God’s name would anybody spend that much time and energy on email? The most effective attitude towards email is that it’s a stream of stuff from which you pick what’s important and ignore all the rest.
After years of practice, I reflexively follow the Robbins method and don’t give unimportant emails control over even a tiny fraction of my mental energy. Right now, I have 8,560 unread email messages in my iPhone inbox and 22,239 unread messages in my Outlook inbox.
That’s because I spend my valuable time doing what’s important rather than trying to achieve some weird obsessive-compulsive standard of inbox perfection.
I scan over my Inbox periodically for issues that need handling, but I certainly don’t waste my time thinking about what to do with each message. When necessary, I use the Search function to find all the correspondence connected to a person or subject matter.
In other words, I treat email as a stream of incoming information, much like a twitter feed, from which I pluck what’s necessary.
I’m certain there are other approaches that work as well or better, but I will never allow myself to become a slave to my Inbox. My time is simply too valuable to be expended on filing electronic paperwork.