At this very moment, as you are reading this week’s column, my email inbox probably has a grand total of five emails. Or even less. And of those just one, or maybe two, are emails that require me to respond urgently. The rest are perhaps email newsletters or Groupon offers that are awaiting perusal over a cup of tea soon.
Impressed? Think that I am some kind of maniacally efficient productivity fiend who churns through tasks, deliverables and emails like a machine?
Well, think again. A little.
My email inbox did not exist in such pristine shape just two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago my inbox was much like yours: a post-apocalyptic wasteland of unkept promises, broken relationships, professional malfeasance—all remnants of a life lived irresponsibly.
But that is the problem with email. When email first exploded onto the scene it was supposed to make our professional lives easier and less stressful.
This promise has not been kept. Instead email, much like the prostate gland, lies around quietly most of the time, only to suddenly rear its head before a board meeting or sales conference and assassinate us.
And that is only when it works. The rest of the time email plays mind games with us: Is the server up or down? Mails are coming but not going? What is our attachment limit? 3 MB? 2.7 MB? Is this what my life has come to?
For instance, employees of this newspaper use a high-tech, state-of-the-art email platform that works as follows:
1. Imagine you are sending an email from Mint’s Delhi office to its Mumbai office.
2. You write a two-line text email and click send. Within just 45 minutes this email reaches the server in the server room.
3. Here the email is printed out on strips of paper, rolled up and attached to pigeons.
4. These pigeons are released from the roof of the Delhi office. Simultaneously members of the IT department stand downstairs and try to shoot them down with small-calibre weapons. This is called firewall.
5. Approximately 15% of these pigeons arrive at the server room in Mumbai.
6. Here an IT department operative filters out urgent messages sent from BlackBerrys and carefully inserts typos into recipient email addresses. Then everything is typed back into the server.
7. The messages are then sent to the employee’s inbox within three working days.
8. Where it bounces immediately because the employee’s inbox is full of 3,200 copies of yesterday’s newspaper in full resolution PDF.
All these systemic inefficiencies are only made much worse by my own tardiness.
So two weeks ago I decided to take charge. My process was brutal but efficient. You should give it a shot.
First take a backup of your email. This is as a precaution, so that later when you are quitting the company you will have the joy of deleting a really large useless file you have never accessed.
Next select every email older than six months and delete it. Yes, this might sound like a cruel thing to do. But what can be more cruel than not replying to an email for six months? Delete. And delete with joy.
Now at this point it is natural to feel a little perturbed. What if there is an important email I am missing? What if something comes up and I have to access a really old email?
This is the same part of your brain that sabotages your attempts at dieting and exercise by making you crave, at the exact moment you mount the treadmill, for the joys of sitting down and eating a freshly made kheema paratha that is crispy on the outside but unctuous on the inside with mint-studded yoghurt dribbling off the edge and down the side of the stack of parathas.
On no account are you to listen to that voice in your head! Simply delete screen after screen of detritus.
Next select all messages older than three months and filter out the ones with attachments. Archive only the ones you have to. Delete the rest. Delete one by one. Delete in groups. Delete by the screenfuls. Apply whipped cream to yourself and delete. Just delete.
Once you are done with this, start filtering out messages from the previous three months. Delete any conversations that are closed. Archive/file any that are pending from other people. If you spot anyone waiting to hear from you take a quick call. Reply or delete. But do not leave unprocessed. This is cardinal.
Continue till you are left with only this week’s emails. Take a deep breath, make a cup of green tea, and decide to do nothing else till you process each and every one.
If my experience is any indicator you will soon be left with only a small number of emails that require long, thought-out responses. As painful as this sounds, sit down and get them done.
Don’t stop till you have nothing left in your inbox.
And from that point onwards be fanatical about an empty inbox. You will be surprised at the productivity gains. It might even change your life.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life.
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama-