As someone who makes my livelihood using my mind, I spend a good amount of time thinking about how to optimize my mental performance. Books, videos, online courses, I’m willing to admit that I’ve tried just about everything, with the exception of performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t touch that stuff. But I can assure you, my research on this subject has been quite thorough.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a brand new methodology for managing mental tasks, and it’s already made an immediate difference in my life. In this essay, I’ll outline the model here, complete with resources and links so you can test it out for yourself. My thesis and hope is that this framework will significantly reduce your cognitive load, increase clarity throughout your day, and boost your overall output.
History of Inbox Zero
The concept of “inbox zero” was coined by Merlin Mann, writer and founder of 43folders, a website on finding the time and attention to do your best work. Essentially, the idea is about reducing the number of items in your inbox to as close to zero as possible, thus helping you stay punctual and effective with email. I was first introduced to the system several years ago, when I began my career and now I can’t imagine how I ever got anything done prior to my adoption.
Something happened recently. I’m not sure how or why, but I began to imagine that your mind, isn’t much different than an inbox. By that, I mean you have inputs, outputs, and a whole lot of mess in between. This realization led me to the natural assumption,
“What would happen if I managed my mind the same way I manage my inbox?”
With that, “Mental Inbox Zero” was born. Aside from my intrinsic curiosity with productivity and self-development, I mentioned earlier that having a framework to optimize and organize my workflow is something I desperately need to perform my job better. Without a system like this, my health would suffer. I’d be sleep deprived from all the tasks nagging my attention and subsequently stressed about nonexistent futures. All this because I lack basic control over my own mind. Well now I’ve taken the controls back, and I’m going to share with you exactly how I did it.
Email Functions Applied
In this section, I’ll go over the core functions of your typical inbox and how to apply similar functionality to achieve the status of mental inbox zero.
Your Mental Inbox
This is the most basic function of every email program, a collection of incoming messages. Throughout your day, your brain collects inputs from all over the place, inhaling the data through your sensory organs and processing it through your brain. Consciousness gives humans the ability to pick and choose what information we should act on and when, at least to an extent. This is what allows us to think rationally, and not cave in to our donut-grabbing instincts.
If you imagine your brain as a collection of inputs, instead of just a place where you think, you’ll be able to process more mindfully and objectively. It’s almost like reading your thoughts in the third-person. E.g. “What should Brian (me) be working on today?”
Task Completion AKA Compose New Message
The reply or compose button in your email system is your response to inputs. The best-selling author and productivity coach, David Allen preaches a system he’s refined over the years called, Getting Things Done or, “GTD”. One of the fundamental ideas of GTD, is that if something takes less than two minutes, do it immediately! I use this both for email and life and highly recommend implementing the idea.
For larger tasks that require more time, no problem, I’ll get to this shortly. But I want to make it clear that there’s nothing like having a million unfinished micro-tasks, to stress you out. So, here’s an easy way to remember, “If it takes less than two, do.”
My archive button is my best friend. In mail, archive moves something from your inbox without deleting it. You might use this for items you’ve either already completed (two minute tasks), or messages that require no action, like updates from friends and family.
Applying mental archive to your brain is all about translation. Transfer absolutely everything actionable onto paper, or into a digital format as soon as possible. Personally, I use both a physical notebook, and the note function on my laptop. Almost every prolifically successful person I know uses some sort of checklist system. The reason this helps is that the more items flying holding patterns in your mental inbox, the less efficient you’ll be at organizing, reading, and managing them.
Mental archive removes as many items from your mind as possible, reducing your overall cognitive workload. There’s been a lot of research on the finite decision-making power of our brains, which shows that even if you’re not actively thinking about something, keeping it in the back of your brain still drains cognitive energy. Writing out all to-do lists and things you want to remember later like groceries, events, etc. alleviates this pressure.
Mind Spam or Junk Mail
The junk button of email blocks inputs from unwanted sources. In other words, things you don’t want to see twice. If you wouldn’t subject yourself to hundreds of unwanted emails, don’t do this to your brain. Setting up a mental spam filter will help you ignore unsolicited and distracting items, saving your finite attention for what matters most.
If you’re the kind of person who makes too many commitments at once, this section is especially for you. I highly recommend the article: The Gentle Art of Saying No. Setting up and managing your mental filter is about practicing the art of saying “no” to the unimportant, and yes to the things in your life that drive real value.
Habits and Autoresponders
There is a ton of research out there on habits. I’ve been lucky enough to work with one of the best habit bloggers on the web and I can tell you, forming habits works. The reason habits work so well goes back to the same problem of cognitive capacity. If you have to consciously decide to work out, and you’re already exhausted from your day, you won’t do it. If, on the other hand, you make working out a habit, that’s one less decision you have to make, once again freeing up your decision-making power for the more essential.
When people go on vacation, they set up email autoresponders to notify people not to expect an immediate response. If you sat on the beach emailing everyone that you’ll be back in the office soon, it’d ruin the entire vacation (sadly some people do this). The point of automation is mental liberation. The Power of Habit is another excellent resource, explaining the benefits that automation can bring to your life. If you find yourself repeating similar decisions day after day, try to figure out a way to build a “mental autoresponder”. Habit formation is probably the most effective way I know.
Plan Your Way To Sanity
Alright. You made it. If you’re still with me, I’ve covered the fundamental email functions and how you can apply these to help you achieve mental inbox zero. But there are a few additional techniques I use to improve the effect further. This section is about the power of planning.
By now, you’re well aware that every decision you make taxes your finite mental CPU. If I were to ask, “What should you be doing right now,” would you have an answer? If you have to think about this, you’re wasting precious mental resources. I take just five or ten minutes first thing in the morning (I like to do this while I drink my coffee) to plan my day. This eliminates the question of “what should I be doing?” saving decision making abilities for the items that need critical thinking, and not on where or when I should take my lunch break.
It doesn’t have to be fancy. I write out all the meetings and things I need to do in Google calendar. If there’s a gap in my schedule, I write, “free time” or “relax”. What I try to avoid are any empty spaces. Having nothing on your calendar will cause you to question your priorities. Once you have a system in place, it’s one less question you have to actively think about.
Bonus! Planning also allows you to review what you did at the end of your day or week, further letting you reflect and optimize your system.
Another popular technique worth mentioning here is “batching”. In his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Work Week, quantified-self fanatic, Timothy Ferriss, writes an entire section on the benefits of batching. Checking for and responding to messages as they come in is extremely inefficient. Mental switching costs from interruptions cause you to bleed cognitive energy.
Instead, plan times in your schedule for checking and replying to messages. This way, you deal with messages with purpose, giving one hundred percent of your focus on answering. It’s a bit like Henry Ford’s assembly line. The more specialized you are, the more productive you’ll be. Multi-tasking emails while driving might look productive from the outside, but we know that this decreases efficiency. Experiment with batching similar tasks throughout your day, and plan appropriate time on your calendar for completion.
A Healthy Mental Inbox
If something’s important to you, you’d take good care of it, right? Since I use my mind for work, and I invest in myself the same way I’d treat a one-of-a-kind piece of hardware.
Maintenance like regular exercise, proper nutrition, meditation for stress reduction, and seeking novel experiences are all documented ways you can cultivate intelligence and keep your brain in top shape.
I’ll leave you with one last thing that helps me keep my mental status healthy and full of energy, and that’s to regularly seek experiences “larger than the self.” Visit the ocean, take a walk in the woods, attend a religious or community gathering, volunteer, do anything to take your focus off the “big me” and onto something else for a while. Experiment with what works best for you, but I find there’s nothing better to help me articulate my goals in greater context of life than to humble myself before its wonders.
Congratulations. You’ve made it to the end. Was it worth it? To me, the state of mental inbox zero feels like complete immersion in the present moment, combined with clarity and purpose on the task at hand. If you’ve ever experienced flow, mental inbox zero feels a bit like that.
My thesis is that through practice of the framework outlined above, combined with regular mental maintenance, you’ll be able to lower your overall levels of stress, boost your clarity, and increase total output. As mentioned in the introduction, I’ve only recently started applying this to my life, so it’s still very much a work in progress. That said, I wholeheartedly welcome feedback from any brave people willing to test some of these recommendations as a way to “open-source” and further refine the system.
I don’t normally write such long articles, and I’m no “management guru”, but I felt compelled to share this idea with you, in hopes that it might help you more effectively leave your dent in the universe. My writing is a labor of love, a challenge to myself, and proof that if you care about something enough, you’ll do whatever it takes to set it free.