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Spark Talk

Five Minutes to Inbox Zero – Overcoming the E-mail Avalanche
(Text of my Spark Talk – Public Library Association Conference, March 22, 2018)


Let’s go! I only have five minutes to tell you the five things you can do with an email. First of all in a show of hands, how many of you have completely emptied all your email inboxes at some point in the last 24 hours?  I mean completely empty – everything – no read or unreads, absolutely zero messages inside.  For those of you who have, go ahead and take a five minute nap.  For the rest of you, pay close attention if you want to be an Efficient Librarian.

Most people use their inbox to manage their entire workflow process, mixing actionable items with waiting fors, someday maybes, and archives.  They never even take out the trash!  This would be like having a giant box on your desk and throwing every piece of paper inside it and then expecting to do productive, timely work.  Ain’t happening.

You see, this digital world we live in calls for a new kind of martial art.  You need to channel your inner Neo or Trinity, or for the super cool ones, Morpheus, and take the path of the Efficient Librarian. As I wrote in my article for Public Libraries Magazine, Nov/Dec 2017, an Efficient Librarian is an elite knowledge worker navigating the complexity of the post-Internet information world.  This includes mastery of email.

Let me ask you this, how many of you enjoy missing deadlines?  How many of wake up in the morning hoping that it will be a stressful, pressure packed, hectic day?  I say unless you love chaos, very few of you want to work this way.  Far too many people misuse their inbox and as a result create a huge source of stress in their life and that of their colleagues.  That is why I believe mastery of your email is vital to creating a playful work environment full of purpose that allows you to reach your full potential.

First please understand the purpose of the inbox.  When Thor came down from Asgard to give the first Vikings an inbox, he designed it for one task only – to identify new input. The inbox is horrible as an action reminder, archive, or any other purpose aside from showing your latest messages.  Thor would cast down a thunderbolt on any Viking foolish enough to misuse the inbox.

Alas, Thor has been slacking with his responsibilities since he moved to Hollywood, so it is up to each one of us to take the Efficient Librarian path.

At this point I need you all to take the Inbox Oath.  Please put your left hand over your heart and your right hand in the air.  Repeat after me, “My Inbox is not a Storage Location, it is a Processing Station.”  Very good, you have now all committed to keeping a clean inbox going forward.  So you might be asking yourself how that is possible.  Pay close attention grasshopper and you will find out.

The secret is that there are only five things you can do with any message in your inbox. Hold up a hand and spread out your fingers like the Subway five dollar foot-long ads. Okay here is what you need to know.

The first option is to trash the message, that’s your pinky.  Get rid of as much as you can out of your inbox as soon as you recognize junk.  You already have a Trash folder ready to go even if you haven’t used it yet.

The second option is to archive it, that’s your ring finger.  That’s all the stuff you want to save in case you need it later. Now be careful to avoid the indexing temptation to create million different subject folders.  Dare yourself to go with one archive folder and then be ready to power search the heck out of it when needed.

The third option is your middle finger, representing Someday/Maybe.  This category is for good ideas you are not ready to work with yet. It is also known as your dream folder for items you might want to do in the future.  Newsletters can go in here as well for future reading.

The fourth option is waiting for, your pointing finger.  These are messages that you have sent out to others and are now waiting for a response.  Create a Waiting For folder to keep a list of everything you have sent out that needs a response.

The fifth option is your thumb for action.  The messages that you need to do something about as soon as possible, such as write them back, complete a task, or engage for a project. These sit in a spiffy action folder.

Once these folders are in place, it is an easy matter to slide messages out from the inbox very quickly. That’s all it takes to start on the road of the Efficient Librarian.

If you have a bit of backlog, I suggest just going through the last three months of email.  Anything older probably non-actionable and can be archived or trashed.

To learn more, please visit my blog at  And get yourself a copy of the book, Getting Things Done, by David Allen, which was the inspiration for this talk.  Now in the time remaining, I am going to demonstrate this technique before your very eyes.  I will zero out my inboxes right now.

Email Blues

Overcoming the Email Blues
(Published January 3, 2018 – ALA Learning Exchange Newsletter)

What is the worst thing about coming back to work after a vacation? In my informal polling, most participants claim that the thing they dread most is opening up their email to face that huge backlog of messages. Email is a vital work tool where more and more of our daily transactionional work is done. Unfortunately, it is often the biggest impediment to productive work due to mismanagement of the high volumes of messages that flow into it. However, with the application of a few simple best practices the stress of email management can be vanquished.

Let’s start with a basic premise. The purpose of your inbox is to alert you when new content arrives. Most people recognize that they need to empty out their USPS mailbox every day or else the postal carrier will stop delivering. Yet many people use their email inbox as a storage location for a wide variety of actionable and non-actionable items. This means that every time they open their inbox everything has to be scanned in order it to identify new content and to get reacquainted with the backlog. This is draining and inefficient. The best way to use your inbox is to clear it out completely every 24-48 hours. This can seem an impossible task if you don’t know where to store the messages in order to find them later.

Essentially, there are only five things you can do with an email. The first option is to trash it. Why keep garbage around if you don’t have to? The second option is to save it as reference material for potential use later. For this, you can either create one folder called “Reference” to store all your saved messages, or optionally a small set of additional folders to store email from your major correspondents (i.e. boss, direct reports, section colleagues, etc.). The third option is for email that has no action now, but may have one later. These are known as “someday/maybes”, “dreams”, “non-active projects” or “read/review”. An example would be an advertisement for a workshop. You might want to attend the workshop one day, just not right now. Stash the message in the “someday/maybe” folder for review at a later date when you are ready to attend. The forth option for email are the “waiting fors”. These are items that you are waiting for a response from someone else before you can take your next action. Put the email in a “waiting for” folder as a reminder to bug the person later if they don’t get back to you. The fifth option is reserved for actionable items. These are messages you have to respond to, but are not ready to do so immediately Store them in an “action” folder to work on when time becomes available.

There is often a temptation to check email frequently in case something important arrives. To this end many people set up notification alerts. However, do we really need them? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely did an informal survey on his blog ( about email habits. Participants in his study indicated that out of all the email that arrived in their inbox, only 11% of it warranted immediate attention. Basically, just 1 in 10 messages that arrived in participant’s inboxes were worthy of quick action. The rest could wait for hours or days and 24% could be trashed immediately. The implication is that notification alerts probably hinder your productivity more than they help. So feel free to turn them off and only look at the inbox when you want to do so.

It is far better to surf on top of email than to be drowned under it. Using this simple system can clear out your backlog and get you to the zen-like world of the empty inbox. Some great resources to check out that served as source material for this article include David Allen’s and the “Inbox Zero” web site