It’s been almost 10 years since I made a decision to keep a clean inbox. Since that time, I’ve managed to clear my inbox down to zero on average a few times a month. It’s always a great feeling to see your email inbox at zero, but it’s been an excruciating journey to get there.
Over the years I’ve managed to learn some tricks to manage email (like unsubscribing to lists, using templates, having a separate decision making space, etc). But nevertheless it’s taken a lot of willpower and energy to try to manage email.
Recently, I’ve been conducting an experiment. I read/delete announcement-type emails, reply quickly to emails that I’m able to, and then I print all the remaining emails in my inbox. Yes, you read that correctly… I actually print my emails onto paper.
At first, printing onto paper took a lot of mental energy to accept. I’ve been paperless for almost 10 years and I hate physical papers laying around. I also don’t like wasting paper as well. So, the idea of printing emails was difficult to accept. But I wanted an easier way to clear my inbox and I was wiling to try almost anything.
So, I went to Walmart and got their cheapest paper ($3.88 for a ream) and I use a black/white laser printer on draft mode. And for the past couple weeks, I’ve been doing the same routine:
1. Read and then delete all announcement/info-type of emails
2. Reply to all the emails that I’m able to on the spot that don’t require a lot of decision-making or deep thought.
3. I print all the remaining emails in my inbox.
Usually, I’m only printing about 5-10 emails at a time because I do a pretty good job with #1 and #2.
After printing #3, I place the printed emails in a manila folder and place them in my bag. Later in the day I’ll review all the printed emails one-at-a-time. When I review each printed email I’ll usually do the following:
1. I’ll review each printed email individually and write my notes directly onto the printed email.
2. I’ll organize my notes and write down my next action step regarding the email and how to respond to it.
3. After I’ve doing #1 and #2 for each printed email, I’ll then clear out my inbox by replying to each email according to how I decided to reply in #2.
The result is a clear inbox with minimal pain.
Why answering tough emails on the computer screen is painful
Part of why printing difficult emails works is because replying to difficult emails on the computer screen can be painful. The problem with a computer screen is that sometimes it’s not easy to brainstorm and search for solutions. I find that wild note taking with a pen can be more effective in coming up with a solution most of the time.
Writing on a computer screen is somewhat too confining. It’s tough to juggle a dozen ideas. And it’s difficult to lay out your thoughts in a way that’s creative. Usually on a computer screen you’re typing something and there’s something about typing, while it keeps things looking neat and organized, that tends to restrict the creative side of the brain. Sometimes being behind a computer screen is like putting your brain in a box.
For most tasks I can do a decent job behind a computer screen and the box it puts me in. But sometimes certain emails require deeper thought and freedom for my brain to be creative. I find that jotting down ideas on paper, drawing arrows, crossing out things, underlining things, and making a mess tends to free up my brain just enough where sometimes the creative solution becomes evident. That’s what you miss behind a computer screen, and that’s what is sometimes necessary when answering difficult emails.
Worth a try
So if you’re falling behind in email or just want to make clearing your inbox easier, it might be worth it to try printing the emails that are the most difficult to reply to and giving yourself some space to tackle them on paper on not on the screen.