Working Outside the Inbox: Put your Inbox in the upstairs bathroom

imageLast week Lifehacker shared out this blog post by Jesse Stormier: “Put Your Inbox in the Upstairs Bathroom“. And it immediately clicked for me: living inside the inbox is just too easy. This, of course, makes the shift to living outside the inbox even more difficult, as people don’t change until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change.

This really can come down to a chicken or egg issue: is our addiction to email fueled by the ease of use, or is the ease of use driven by our addiction? In either case the solution, in part, is just as easy. In Jesse’s post he notes how he switched from a slick GUI client and push notifications to using a command line email client, akin to putting his inbox as far away from him as his upstairs bathroom. Now, for a Unix guru that’s a rather elegantly simple solution, as he is more than comfortable with the command line I’m sure. I’m even guessing it would work for a number of you reading this post here on developerWorks as well, knowing your technical excellence often has you playing on the command line.

Me? I’m lazy. While putting my inbox in the upstairs bathroom is a grand idea (my home office is upstairs, so it really isn’t much of a trip at all), going as far as using Mutt on the CLI to access it is more akin to putting my inbox in my backyard, or for other people it may even be closer to their postal box down the street. Making email hard to use isn’t really the point of working outside of the inbox.  Rather, the intent is to improve our collaborative efforts using tools better suited to the tasks and not automatically default to using email unless it really is the right tool for the job. So, let’s make it easy!

Ok, but where’s the solution? What’s the recommendation? Two simple parts come to mind here:

  • Turn off notifications More than anything, notifications are likely the biggest contributor to time wasted in the inbox. It is human nature to want to clear a flag, or notice, or other indicator that there is an email waiting for us. This is even more compounded if you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies at all. The need to address a notice immediately can often be too great to ignore, and thus the interruption occurs. (Just in the time I’ve taken writing this post I’ve scurried off to deal with no less than 5 notifications about email messages arriving and awaiting my action.) So turn them off. Notices are much easier to ignore if you can’t see them. 
  • Close your email client when you aren’t using it- As simple as it sounds, for me this is more akin to putting my inbox in the upstairs bathroom. I don’t have to go through the extra effort of accessing it via command line, since the time taken to actively think about checking my messages then open my email client and wait for it to load is sufficient. Out of sight out of mind, right? Don’t leave it running but minimized, or in another browser tab but not focused. Close it. Completely.

With these two easy bits covered, my last recommendation will be to schedule specific and focused time in your day to address your inbox messages, freeing you from the shackles of your inbox the rest of the day! I know a few people around here only deal with email first thing in the morning when they arrive to work, and last thing before they leave (in between, of course, is when real work is being done and collaboration occurring all across the organization in the right tools for the jobs at hand). Or perhaps scheduling three times to check: on arrival, right after lunch, and again before leaving for the day.

Regardless of how you go about it, finding what works for you is the key to enjoying a life outside of your inbox. I assure you, it is absolutely worth the mild pain of change!


image credit: (cc) Some rights reserved by eperales