Why ‘Doing Nothing’ is The New Inbox Zero

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Productivity is big business, so it’s no wonder there is an increasing array of experts, insights and tools purporting that their singular solution is the one to deliver you to the heights of success. But before you embark on the latest 4-hour work week or drive yourself to despair trying to reach Inbox Zero, consider that productivity is not a one-size-fits-all category and the tactics you’re using in your ambition to ‘be productive’ may actually be hindering rather than helping.

Swap multitasking for monotasking

Multitasking’s reputation has quite rightly diminished in recent years. This once lofty ambition has been exposed as one of the main reasons we lose focus and time. How? When you switch tasks, your brain wastes time getting up to speed and you lose focus. When multitasking, you may find it difficult to become deeply engaged as your brain already knows it’s not going to be on that task for long.

Monotasking, sometimes known as single-tasking, means you dedicate yourself to a given task and take steps to minimize potential interruptions, ideally until that task is completed. Not all working environments and disciplines are suitable for monotasking – for example, you may need to put a job to one side while you wait for a response from a customer or work colleague – but the principle of maintaining focus on one task at a time is a demonstrably sound one.

Why power through when you can power down?

Most of us live in a world of deadlines with stakeholders to please, so there will always be points when we just need to knuckle down, dig deep and get something done. But many of us are taught that ‘powering through’ should be our default mode for maximum productivity. This kind of thought process is a legacy from the industrial revolution; when we were all working on a factory line doing the same mundane task over and over and our end goal was predictable and absolute.

Nowadays, more often than not in business, we’re problem-solving, sometimes literally inventing solutions on the fly. In this case, powering through when you’re not feeling it will at best give you a lackluster solution, at worst get you into ‘costly mistake’ territory. The Swedes say, “the pillow is the best advisor” and this definitely applies to problem-solving. If you can sleep on a problem – even in a polyphasic sleep pattern – your problem-solving capabilities are scientifically proven to improve. This is due to a neurological process known as ‘spreading activation’ where your brain is able to search your vast amount of subconscious knowledge while you sleep as it seeks associations to solve the problem.

Short bursts of intense focus are best

If you don’t have the luxury of hitting the hay, you might consider employing the Pomodoro Technique. This time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity with a host of new timer apps helping you break your work down into intervals – traditionally 25 minutes in length – and separate them with short breaks.

The Pomodoro Technique is really useful for our modern condition, where we’re so distracted by technology (I’m talking about you, social media) that our brains literally struggle to focus. Plan out 25-minute bursts – one might even be ‘sit silently thinking’ – and be sure that whatever activity you’re undertaking in your interval minutes is a complete contrast, like HIIT exercise or even calling a family member or friend.

Why Inbox Zero doesn’t make you an Inbox Hero

When I first started developing ActiveInbox, Inbox Zero was the productivity zeitgeist when it came to email. The popular notion that an empty inbox represented the height of productivity was great in theory but overlooked one key aspect of email: you’re not in control of the emails distributed throughout your network. By constantly responding to emails that other people – not you – have determined to be your priority, you’re abdicating control of your time for the very fleeting hit of satisfaction you get from an empty inbox.

Alternatively, treating emails like the tasks they essentially are formed the basis of me developing ActiveInbox into a powerful task manager, over years of collaboration with enthusiastic users. Being able to turn emails into tasks, set due dates and reminders for follow-ups means you can rise above the noise and be confident you’re not missing anything in the relentless tide of communication email brings.

The Zen promise of the outdated Inbox Zero relies on you being emotionally responsible for all the unnecessary information that comes in via email, to enable to you to reach your goal. That temporary headspace – so fleeting with Inbox Zero – is far more achievable and long lasting if your attention is only on the most important things. By recording them as trackable tasks, you’re not wasting precious mental resources worrying about what you may have forgotten as you navigate the rest of your inbox, freeing your mind for the things that actually move the needle.

For those who don’t want to use a plugin to wrangle their digital communications, I counsel to simply reply less quickly and engage less often. Your network will be grateful for fewer emails and more often than not, other people’s concerns – that in the past you would have immediately involved yourself with – will be worked out by someone else or become an irrelevance due to the pace of modern business. In the case of email, less action, even no action, is sometimes the way forward.

Whatever your strategy to achieving peak productivity, remember to remain realistic about what’s achievable for you and the individual members of your team and keep focused on what will bring about a result that represents quality, not quantity. No busy fools here!

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Andy Mitchell is a UK based entrepreneur who has been instrumental in driving email productivity for over a decade. His hero product ActiveInbox helps users take control of their inbox by turning their emails into a powerful task manager. Andy’s agile software company Inbox Foundry has been successfully bootstrapping since 2006 and has helped over 200,000 people reach their peak email productivity.

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