An empty inbox shouldn’t be aspirational for everyone!

“A rigid, one-size-fits-all approach usually ends up fitting no one” – Patrick Lencioni

Every time management course I ever attended expounded the virtues of an empty inbox. I must admit that’s how I operate my work email account. However, just because I manage my email that way doesn’t mean everyone who I consult to should do the same. In fact, maintaining an empty inbox should not be aspirational for everyone.

Maximising productivity to me is about aligning principles with a person’s particular strengths, weaknesses and preferences. When designing or redesigning someone’s email, I ask them what frustrates them with their email system, how they feel when they look at their email and then a bunch of questions around how they manage their personal life. For instance, how does your garage look? Are items stored orderly or are items just put in the first available place on an ad hoc basis?

The responses to these questions determine how we design the email management system. While there are many choices, we’re really homing in on what’s going to be easy to manage and provide the greatest return. Ultimately it will come down to whether to go with an empty inbox type approach (the most well-known form is Inbox Zero but other variations are possible) or a non-filed (crowded inbox). For a further explanation see What does a zero inbox really mean?

Despite the popular opinion from many of my contemporaries, an empty inbox isn’t always the best approach. It is in most cases but not in all. An example where this has been evident is when I’ve provided advice to supervisors in the construction industry who spend 90% plus of their time travelling from site to site covering distances that range between 100km – 400km a day. Their key communication tools are an iPad and iPhone. These guys are ex-tradesmen, so they literally have what I’ll eloquently refer to as “fat fingers.” In other words, interacting with a smart device isn’t necessarily their strength, so they need a simple email system. The nature of their jobs has them exceptionally time poor and the last thing they want to be doing is managing their inbox. Therefore, a crowded inbox and just using the search function is the best option for the majority of the supervisors.

Designing and managing your email system is not a case of 1 size fits all. What works well for someone else may not suit you and vice versa. There is a way out if you don’t have an efficient way of managing email – it just needs to be aligned to your specific situation.