E-mail and Dirty Dishes [en]

[fr] Cet article fait le tour de ma méthode pour gérer le flux d'e-mail qui assaillit quotidiennement ma boîte de réception ainsi que le flux de vaisselle sale qui remplit inexorablement l'évier. Deux choses qui a priori n'ont rien à voir, mais qui au fond peuvent faire l'objet du même processus.

I’m a rather disorganised person. I know it comes as a surprise to many of my readers, because my online presence is reasonably organised (in the highly disorganised digital space we live in) and also probably because my writing is, well, pretty structured or something.

I’m a reformed perfectionist (in some areas). I’m somebody who read A Perfect Mess with glee, because it validated a conclusion I’d reached myself over the years: find the sweet spot between too much mess and too much order.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post titled Keeping The Flat Clean: Living Space As User Interface, after I realised that usability principles and accessibility apply to living space too, not only to websites (nothing revolutionary for the world, but it was for me). This kind of thinking has never left me.

So, what does keeping one’s inbox empty and taming the dirty dishes have in common? It hit me the other day.

It’s about keeping some constantly filling “bucket” from overflowing. It’s about having a process to deal with what comes in on a regular basis, and seeing the bottom every now and again.

Over the last year or so, I haven’t been too bad with e-mail. Here are my seven tricks:

  1. turn off notifiers but check regularly
  2. reply immediately to “small stuff” that doesn’t require much brain power
  3. archive, archive, archive: stuff I’ve dealt with, as well as bacn (I create filters for bacn)
  4. stay on top of the “longer” stuff I need to reply to, at max a few days after getting it
  5. identify the stuff I “should” spend time replying to but for some reason I won’t, and deal with it accordingly instead of letting it rot in the inbox for six months before giving up
  6. if things go out of control, I still try to keep up with what’s incoming so it doesn’t get more out of control, and take stabs at archiving/processing the backlog (in that way, my inbox hovered around a stable 300-400 messages in it for most of last year)
  7. if things are too out of control, I don’t hesitate to do a radical “inbox to zero” (my way).

Result:

  • my inbox regularly goes down to zero (about once a week or so)
  • there are usually between a couple and a dozen e-mails in my inbox
  • people are happy because I’m responsive to their e-mails
  • I’m happy because I’m on top of my e-mail (“empty inbox” has a very interesting psychological effect).

Caveats?

  • I’m not regularly active on any mailing-lists, and filter them all out
  • my estimation is that approx 100 messages a day reach my inbox, bacn included
  • I have to “deal” with 30-40 message a day, probably, once you substract what has been filtered out.

So, what about the dishes? I’ve actually been really bad at keeping up with my dirty dishes over the last year (and cleaning in general, ack). A few weeks ago when I was sick, I decided to take control of my kitchen again, if only so that mess in the kitchen would not:

  • depress me
  • get in the way of preparing food and eating regularly.

So, I did the kitchen equivalent of “emptying the inbox to zero” to get a fresh start (warning: this goes a little beyond dishes). Taking inspiration on my inbox mastery, here’s what I did:

  • put all the clean dishes away (they tend to pile up on the draining board)
  • washed all the dirty dishes, and put them away a little later once they had dried
  • cleared the kitchen table of all the junk that was on it and cleaned it
  • did the same thing with one of the working surfaces and the stove

That was my “kitchen to zero” state. The process for keeping things that way is pretty basic:

  1. make sure I see the bottom of my sink regularly (every day if possible, in the evening so it’s clean in the morning — no rigid rule, but an objective I try to meet regularly)
  2. make sure the draining board is regularly empty
  3. near-to-zero tolerance for anything remaining on the kitchen table and working surface once I’m done eating/cooking

It’s been working well so far. Here’s what I think are the three keys that my systems for e-mail and washing dishes have in common:

  1. go for emptiness: seeing the bottom is important, psychologically
  2. flexible “keep the spirit” approach rather than rigid rule: keeps me from feeling “failure guilt” when I slip a bit, and provides living space (life does not fit in rigid rules)
  3. contingency plan for when I drop off: I know I’ll drop off at times, but I know how to get “back on track” when I do (GTD taught me that was vital)

I’m interested in hearing if you use similar methods, or different ones, and what you think of my “three keys” to a successful system. Does it work for you, or not?

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