A Business Men Climbing a Pile of Papers

Your Inbox Will Always Be Full

At this particular moment in time, I’ve got 177 emails in my inbox which I need to do something with, 130 emails in a folder named ‘action items’, 155 items on an ‘ideas’ list, 115 tasks on my to-do list and 14 things on a ‘must-do’ list for tomorrow.  That’s 591 ‘things’ which could be done right now.

Not so long ago, I had a rule, which was that I couldn’t have more than 20 emails in my inbox at any one point in time, and no more than 30 items on my to-do list.

I think the ‘me’ of a few years ago would be sick right now.

(At this point I need to step laterally and say that I seem to remember once reading that, at any point in time, the average person could possibly have around 500 things which they could be doing.

I don’t know if that’s right or wrong and you may have more or less compared to me, but if this is ‘right’, then I guess that makes me about average.)

I reckon I could work non-stop on this list for a week, and whilst it might be reduced in size from time-to-time, by the end of the week, it would probably end up being roughly the same as it is now – maybe even longer!

And I suppose the realisation I’ve come to over recent years is that your inbox, to-do list, in-tray, or whatever vehicle you use to try and manage your ‘stuff’, will always have things in there – and most likely, it will always be full.

But by definition, I think that it’s meant to be that way. In fact you could even argue that it’s essential if you want to go and create – in whatever capacity that happens – in order to fuel thoughts, ideas and actions.

The other thing that initially happened when I realised that I couldn’t keep my inbox down to 20 emails or my task list down to 30 items was that it stressed me out, and so I increased my threshold until I wanted to keep my inbox under 150 emails. In fact, I wouldn’t go to bed until I’d got it under that level and so would often be up until the early hours of the morning getting it done.

I have to say that this was not only an exhausting approach but on reflection, a one which didn’t really make a huge difference to me or those people around me. Certainly not a positive difference anyway.

In fact the amount of times I would leave someone somewhere waiting for me whilst I tried to clear a list was ridiculous.

But I wonder how many of us think that the secret to success is to get everything done, get our inbox down to a certain level or our list reduced to a particular number. And moreover, think that our obsession with our to-do list is only a temporary state, which will eventually dissipate.

It’s that old, ‘I’ll be happy when…’ mirage, whereby we claim that we’ll be happy when we’ve got our lists to a certain point, and that our resulting stress or unease is merely a momentary state. On the flip side however, it’s more likely that any feeling of well-being is only a momentary state, which every so often punctuates the more constant stress and unease.

So the way around this conundrum, which faces most of us, is not to have less in our inbox, in-tray or list because, after all, if we want to create then we need a pipeline of stuff from which to start. No, the answer is to accept a few simple truths:

#1 – If you focus on your work, the important stuff will all get done in due time. Assuming that you’ve got this far, the chances are that you’re not too bad at getting the important stuff done. If you can consider ways in which to prioritise that stuff so that it doesn’t get lost in the noise, then all the better. But even still, the brain has a remarkable way on ensuring that the really important stuff stays front of mind.

#2 – There is never an ‘end-point’ and the inbox, list or basket will always receive an inflow. I think that acknowledging this point is pretty fundamental – and not just ‘understanding’ it, but really acknowledging it. Because once you accept this, then it removes a huge burden and leaves you free to think and do the important stuff.

#3 – Don’t create limits or thresholds – it’s a poor measure and not one linked to success but to anxiety. In addition, whatever threshold you set yourself, you’ll only go on to reach! And you’ll miss so much that’s going on around by trying to keep within it. Once you acknowledge #2, then the need for a thresholds disappears.

#4 – The focus can’t just be on getting as much done as possible as it means you’re more likely to miss out on the really good or important stuff. If you’re constantly doing, you’re not thinking. And as it’s thinking which drives behaviour and results, then you need time to think. Time to review, consider, create and plan. And none of that happens when you’re involved in the constant churn of doing. You could get another 10 emails done or things ticked off your list or instead, consider what might possibly make the biggest difference to you or your business.

#5 – Work to themes/projects/initiatives which are priorities – and do keep that list small – around three. So if the stuff on the other lists feeds into these three, then great. Keep going and, in fact, keep adding to them. If on the other hand they don’t feed into these themes/projects/initiatives, then just get rid of them, as they’re not contributing as well they might.

One final thought. Sometime, someday the music will stop and the chances are that you’ll still have stuff in your inbox and on your to-do list. It’s unlikely at that point you’ll wish you’d done more of them and actually, the really important stuff will still probably get done by someone else anyway! As such, it has to be about enjoying the journey along the way. Otherwise it’ll be a long and arduous ride.


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