KEEP Shattering the Chains of Your Inbox with “5S" | How to Be Lean with Email (Part 4 of 5)

Every flipping time I walked into my bedroom I saw it...


That messy bed.  


As an employee it was super-easy to roll out of bed, get ready for work and never think about my messy bed until I returned home that night.  It didn’t affect my day because I wasn’t around to see it.


I wouldn’t say it was the furthest thing from my mind, but it was pretty dang close to it.


Yet, when I came home I saw it.  It was a super-small detail in my life as an employee but I still felt like a lazy bum every time I came home all excited to see the kids and saw my messy bed when I went into the bedroom to dress down.


Nevertheless, when I started working from home it was an entirely different ballgame. 


I was in and out of the bedroom much more frequently, and every time I looked at that unmade bed it small fraction of BTU’s of my mental energy were unnecessarily expended, every single day. 


A Small Wins Create Momentum

A few weeks after taking my leap into entrepreneurship I decided to commit to making my bed each morning. 


To be transparent, this wasn’t my own doing, it got the idea from The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (I dug up the episode for you, click here if you want to listen) and I started making my bed, without fail, each and every moment.


It was a small win; a small win that completely aligns with the 3rd “S” of 5S:




(check out the 1st and 2nd “S” described in my previous article in this series on email by clicking here). 


3 - Let it “Shine” (seisou)


A - The Clean Workspace

So you don’t think having a clean workspace matters towards your productivity?  


I have a stack of papers on my desk right now that need to be mailed to my accountant.  I realized (as I’m writing this) that I have one open-item left to complete before I can mail these papers off and get them out of my space: to compile and print out my mileage logs for the tax write-off. 


I kept these papers in my workspace to remind me to schedule the additional time I need to complete everything for taxes this year.  Until I get this task scheduled or have a plan to complete it, there they sit…and I get to stare at them all day, expending unnecessary energy thinking about that open loop.  


[one moment please…]


Ahh, that feels better. 


I just scheduled time to finish the task and filed the papers away and cleared off my desk.  Now I no longer have to think about taxes until this evening, when I have scheduled time to work on them.


My workspace is free and I can focus on writing this blog article. 


Had I continued to burn energy on the clutter within my workspace I would be more susceptible to distractions….and what’s the #1 distraction in the workplace?


That’s right…email.


We’re human.  The more clutter in our workspace, the less focus we have and the quicker we burn out.  For this reason, it’s important to keep our workspace clean. 


The “shine” principle is about as straightforward as it gets. 


When we take pride in something, we take ownership of it and take care of that something.  Sometimes it means occasionally vacuuming out all the little cookie crumbs and loose hairs from our keyboard and actually wiping up dried coffee rings from our desktop.


Yes, evening dusting off the top of our file cabinets helps free up critical space in our minds.  


Still, it goes deeper than our workspace. “Shine” also applies to our email inbox and many other elements of our lives.


The “Shiny” Inbox

For email, the key to starting and maintaining our process for email (and work in general, for that matter) is to start with a clean slate

To get ahead of the game, we must dedicate a distraction-free block of time to use the 5S, “set” principles outlined in my previous blog post, by crunching through legacy email that’s made it’s semi-permanent home in our inbox, like never before. 

Depending how many messages require processing, we may want to block out multiple half-days, or even a full-Saturday to get it done.  I’ve found that if we're disciplined about using the three “set” strategies (bacon, reports, 2M), it’s possible to push through up to 10,000 emails in a day.  

10K emails is a lofty goal, and laser-focus is required, but it’s feasible to get it done and get down to inbox “0.” 

Note that the initial block(s) of time spent processing email and getting to inbox zero must be distraction-free.

If we work in an office, “distraction-free” may mean locking ourselves in a conference room, or convincing our boss to let us work from home for the day, or even coming into the office on the weekend. 

Whatever the tactic, we need to be slightly obsessive about our email processing goals. If we’re consistent about our 5S habits, crunching through large volumes of email is only temporary, and blocking out a time is a small sacrifice for establishing a good habit. 

Although not the overarching goal, inbox zero does feel good.  Email burdens must be lifted off our shoulders as quickly as possible.

B - Keep Equipment Up-to-Date

In manufacturing, “shine” equates to establishing preventative maintenance (PM) schedules and procedures.  Machines must be cleaned, greased and tested regularly. 

For email, PM's apply to our personal strategy for backing up files regularly to a server so they’re not lost.  If our computer crashes with the blue screen of death, we’re out of business!

Don’t let this happen. 

If we’re an office manager, we must make sure the copier is serviced regularly to minimize the chance of getting stuck when it breaks down the day we need to print out handouts for a big presentation. 

If we’re deliberate about the “shine” principle, efficiency will follow, especially with hardware working properly and updated on a consistent schedule.

I’m not going to dwell much more on “shine,” but again, there are psychological studies that prove if we’re cleaned up and organized, we’ll not only feel better about our workspace, but also about ourselves and the work we put out into the world. 

It’s all the better with hardware working properly and updated regularly. 

4 - Standardize (seiketsu)

5S principle #4 is my favorite, and soon to be yours (I’m sure of it).

To standardize simply means to create a process for implementing best practices, and then actually use it.

To implement a standardize email process that works, the biggest challenge you to take the NEXT step, the most important step

Set ground rules for yourself

Ground rules will serve as your standard.

But setting ground rules isn’t enough; the important part lies in our commitment to making a change in our email habits, and not deviating from the standard. 

We need to commit! 

Writing things down is a great way to get the commitment ball rolling, and I started by writing down my personal ground rules for email…

(How immensely excited are you NOW?)

Here they are...the results of my email experiments. 

I consider the ground rules my personal standard for dealing with email.

Ground Rule #1

"I will complete my most important task before 10:30AM."

You expected the 1st ground rule to have something to do with email, didn’t you? 

Well, there’s a specific reason why I did it this way, and it’s simple. 

Our focus is no longer on email, because email is not our job. 

Our focus is on what we need to get done first thing in the morning, when we’re fresh and haven’t been exposed to decision fatigue and the endless noise that exudes from our inbox.  We get important stuff done when our human mind is most effective.

I realize everyone’s body clock is different, but first thing in the morning is when most people have the energy and mental wherewithal to accomplish what’s set out to do for the day. 

So why in the world would we ever want to go and waste this critical state of our personal psyche on reading and responding to email?  

The answer is we WOULDN’T want to waste this critical time - it's our time...

Our time to shine! 


Have you been so jaded by email that you don’t know what you should be working on for a given day?


Don’t worry, you’re not alone (good topic for another blog post).  



Ground Rule #2

"I will not open my email, until my most important task is complete."


If we want to be more effective, we need to position ourselves in such a way that we can eliminate distractions. 


Creativity, coupled with innovation, for the sole purpose of eliminating distractions, is directly correlated to our level of effectiveness at work and at home.  


Those who can successfully eliminate just 50% of their distractions and concentrate on what matters will achieve more, advance quicker, and live more content lives. 


What’s great about eliminating distractions is that the results are non-linear. 


If we can get beyond the 50% distraction mark our performance will improve exponentially!  It’s like compound interest for personal efficiency!


In contrast, most people who continue to feed the noise, will do just that, continue to feed the noise. 


There are outliers everywhere, but those crippled by distractions will usually feel overwhelmed, work longer hours and stay stagnant in their careers.


Eventually, distraction-laden people will spontaneously combust with dissatisfaction - no joke, I’ve seen it happen (freaky stuff). 


We’re better than that... 




The Power of Keeping it Off

There’s power in keeping our inbox closed. 


Email is the mother of all distractions and will account for over 50% of our distractions at work, all by itself. 


So if we can manage to keep our inbox closed all day (which I don’t recommend, by the way) and apply all the ground rules outlined herein, we’ll have already achieved 50% greater effectiveness, unless of course we substitute all that free time with social media or something...


Regardless, it’s a little exciting, right?  But let’s be reasonable.  


There’s an effect to every cause.


Managing Expectations

Your office email culture is likely set already. 


There may be an expectation for you to be constantly plugged in. 


If you start a new job, one of the best ways to get ahead of the email noise is to first develop a feel for how emails are handled in the office and the belief systems of your colleagues in and around their inbox.  


Then, set boundaries early. 


Ask for forgiveness, not permission (such an underrated statement)


For example, when I received notice I would be getting a new boss, one with the reputation of being a bit of a micro-manager, I scheduled a meeting with him the very next day. 


The premise was to gain an understanding of his vision for the team, and how I could contribute to his strategy. 


However, my goal was to be clear about his expectations. 


I made sure our conversation was about what I could offer, and under what conditions I typically add the most value to an organization. 


Not once did I express what I could not, or would not do - I kept everything positive. 


It worked.  


As long as I performed exceedingly well, I had as much freedom with my inbox as I wanted, and a great deal of flexibility with my desk time as well (certainly not the case for my counterparts). 


Even so, whether we have a new manager or not, we could easily communicate the message to an existing manager, even in passing.


For example, I once told my supervisor how I was recently “surprised” to discover how much more I was able to get done when I turned off my email for a few hours. 


It’s usually best to have this conversation after an overly productive day, but regardless, we must make the connection between our personal work habits and the success of the team. 


Feel the supervisor out on this concept; plant a seed.  See how close you can toe the line, and then test the system.  



Auto-replies are an incredibly effective tool for minimizing email. 


If we’re working offline, we just need to let the inbox invaders know we’re offline, how long we plan to be offline, and how to reach us if it’s urgent. 


If it’s that important, they’ll call us. 


In most cases, many people treat auto replies as if the receiver is on vacation and find another way to obtain the information they’re looking for. 


Set the auto-reply expectation and be consistent about it. 


If questioned, just let them know you’re working on ways to be more efficient. 


Ask for forgiveness, not permission (a reoccurring theme, right?)


See what the office will tolerate and tweak from there. 


If we end up having to open and check email every 30 or 60 mins to keep the boss happy, it’s still better than getting pinged with incoming message interruptions all day


but don’t be satisfied...always strive for more.



Ground Rule #3

" I will check email in batches, no more than 3x per day."


This ground rule encompasses similar expectations as #2 - if you’re not always online, you need to manage the expectations of the invaders who believe you should be online all day to the best of your ability. 


I check email twice per day, once mid-morning and a second mid-afternoon. 


I typically do a bacon scan 2x per week (referring to post #2 of this series), in addition to my two email checks for the day, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 


I set a stopwatch and do everything in my power to spend no more than 30 mins per check.


Ideally, email only takes 15 to 20 minutes to process


That’s the goal…my heroes only check email once a day, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet but I’m getting close through outsourcing.


Some days, yes, but others, I just can’t resist the temptation to check responses from emails I sent mid-morning...


Nobody’s perfect.


If you miss an email check, reschedule it! 


This is extremely important because the last thing we want to do is start neglecting email and fill your inbox right back up where it was and the overwhelm to come rushing back in. 


Stay on top of it, 20 mins of uninterrupted, mindless e-mail checking is all it takes.  Process quickly using the three rules (outlined in the second article to this series on email) and move on quickly.  


Remember: email tasks judged to take greater than 2 minutes to respond to, trash, file or forward, are NOT to be worked on during any of the three email checks per day.


If it takes longer than 2 minutes, it belongs on your calendar or task manager. 


Don’t consider it email anymore, consider them something that needs to get done and prioritize them accordingly.


To streamline your email processing sessions even more, please consider the following tips:


  • Disable Incoming Notifications - this allows you to work on what’s in your box without distractions.  Stuff that comes in during your first email session can wait until your second.  Again, if it’s that important they’ll call (preferably after receiving your helpful auto reply message that informed them to do so)


  • Work Offline - if you’re physically working in Outlook, or MacMail and new messages come in, you’ll be gravitated towards them just like you were with the incoming notifications.  Working offline prevents any messages from entering your box until you turn it back on.


  • Send in Batches - it helps to stay offline, and send messages in batches as well, during the climax of your mid-morning or afternoon semi-mindless email processing session.  If you send mid-session that’s fine, just beware that you could have an aggressive cube mate invader drop by your desk to discuss what you just sent them.  


  • Schedule Outlook meetings last - if you have a meeting to setup in Outlook, you can’t see your colleagues schedules if you’re offline.  You can take the time to call them, or you can wait until your batch is done and plug back in.  This just helps mitigate the risk of getting tempted to check new messages as they come in.


Originally, I planned to wrap up this "5S email” series in four parts, but man, I just had a lot to say!


Next week we’ll indeed wrap up 5S email with the final S, and also outline some email etiquette strategies to help you send and receive less email.


Any questions about your organization’s email?  Maybe there’s a few people who’re thinking, “sure that may work for where you used to work, Nick, but we’re different!”


I want to hear from you…please leave your objection below! 


Continue reading this series on Lean Email: