zen habits : breathe

ZTD Habit 2: Process

Recently I posted my new twist on the excellent GTD system, Zen To Done (ZTD): The Ultimate Simple Productivity System. This is the second in a series of posts exploring each of the 10 Habits.

2 process.

Habit: make quick decisions on things in your inbox, do not put them off.

Letting stuff pile up is procrastinating on making decisions. If you process your inboxes, making quick decisions and putting things where they belong, things don’t pile up. Process your inboxes at least once a day, and more frequently if needed.

First, minimize your inboxes. Every place you have to go to check your messages or to read your incoming information is an inbox, and the more you have, the harder it is to manage everything. Cut the number of inboxes you have down to the smallest number possible for you to still function in the ways you need to.

List all the ways you receive information, evaluate each to see if it gives you value, and find ways to combine or eliminate inboxes. If something’s not giving you value, consider eliminating it from your life. See if you can go a week without missing it. For all the rest, see if you can combine multiple information streams into one inbox. For example, how many places in your home do incoming papers get placed? Have one inbox at home for all mail, papers from work, school papers, phone notes, computer printouts, schedules, and more. Have four email services? See if you can forward them all to one service. The fewer inboxes you have, the better. Aim for 4-7 inboxes if possible.

Next, master your inboxes. This stage will sound familiar to my long-time readers, but it should be covered here: Don’t allow your inboxes to overflow. This will create a huge backlog of stuff for you to go through, and it will definitely stress you out. Instead, become the master of your inboxes.

Check and process your inboxes once a day. For some inboxes, you may need to check more than once (I check my email every hour), but don’t check constantly and obsessively. That just wastes your time and cuts into your productivity and real life. But don’t check less than once a day, because otherwise you’ll allow it to pile up. Piles are your enemy.

Here’s how to process:

  1. Process it from the top down, making quick and immediate decisions. Start with the top item in your inbox, and make an immediate decision. Don’t skip over it or put it back in or delay the decision.
  2. Delete. If you don’t need it, trash it. Make this your first choice.
  3. Delegate. Are you the person who should be doing this? If not, send it to someone else and get it off your plate.
  4. Do do it immediately. If the task will take 2 minutes or less, just do it rather than adding it to your to-do list.
  5. Defer it for later. If it will take more than 2 minutes, add it immediately to your to-do list to do later.
  6. File it. If it’s just something you need for reference, file it immediately. Don’t use a Miscellaneous or To Be Filed file — that’s just putting off the decision. Don’t let your things to be filed pile up — just file it right away.
  7. In all cases, don’t leave the item in your inbox. Delete or file it. Work your way down through each item until your inbox is empty. Note: if you have hundreds of items in your inbox, it might be good to toss them all into a folder to be processed later (and schedule a couple hours to do that), and then start this process with all new items from that point on.
  8. Repeat this process, to keep your inboxes empty. If you’ve minimized the number of inboxes you have, this shouldn’t be too hard. Celebrate when your inbox is empty! It’s a wonderful feeling. Remember: Don’t check them all day long — schedule your processing time — and definitely don’t have instant notification on.

See Getting Your Email to Empty and Keeping Your Desk Clear for more.

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