Schrödinger’s Cat and Incoming Email

What’s Lurking in Your Inbox?

Schrödinger’s Cat is a classical thought experiment in quantum mechanics. A cat is placed into a bunker with an explosive charge that has a 50% chance of detonating in the next minute. At the end of the minute, the cat is in what quantum physicists call a superimposed state—it’s both alive and dead at the same time. We don’t know which it is until we open the bunker and check on the cat. At that point, nature chooses an outcome and determines the fate of the cat. (For more information, see the Wikipedia article or this YouTube video.)

Yes, quantum physicists get paid to sit around and think of these things.

Email arrives in your inbox in a similarly superimposed state. Until you process your incoming mail, you don’t know whether it’s something that deserves your attention or isn’t worth the keystroke that sends it to the trash.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockPhoto/dcdp

This process of classifying email (and other inputs) and discovering what you need to do is the princple behind Inbox Zero.

Inbox Zero is frequently held up as a golden ideal of productivity. If you are at Inbox Zero, then you have reached productivity nirvana and must be on top of your game. You exude calm and confidence. Your hair stays in place throughout the day. The maître d’ seats you immediately at his finest table. There’s even a merit badge for it.

The first step when you receive email is triage. Identify what each message represents and decide what needs to be done with it. Incoming messages fall into one of three basic categories:

  1. Something that needs done.
  2. Something you need to know.
  3. A distraction.

When you’re checking your email, the only thing you’re doing is classifying it. You’re collapsing the superimposed state of each message and coming up with a specific plan for it. You’re identifying and isolating the work you’re going to do later.

  • Things that need done. Create a task in your task management system. If you can copy all the pertinent information so you can do the task without referring back to your email, great! If not, create a reference back to the email so you can refer to it later.
  • Things you need to know. Copy the information where it will be the most useful. Create a reminder on your calendar. Update a project note in Evernote. Add a phone number to Contacts. Archive the message. Don’t leave messages in the inbox “just in case” you need to refer to it again.
  • Distractions. No matter what email provider you use, some spam is going to get through. Just delete it. Reduce the amount of bacn you receive by unsubscribing from mailing lists. The grey area here is the feel-good emails that well-meaning friends pass along. They liked it enough to want to share it, but they may not share your sensibilities when it comes to email. Be nice—you can spare a few seconds to enjoy the cute cat pictures, even if you’re a dog person.

It’s tempting to leave messages in the inbox after we read them. We know we’ll check email again, so if it’s still in the inbox, we’ll see it again and remember to do it. The problem is there’s a measurable cost to doing this. You have to hunt through the inbox to find the message, and your brain has to constantly reëvaluate each message it sees. Eventually, your subconscious recognizes the extra cost and starts trying to avoid looking at email altogether.

It’s okay to leave messages in the inbox if you haven’t read it yet. Once you’ve read a message, it comes out. This works better if you don’t leave your email open (or at least not on the inbox) while you work.

Inbox Zero isn’t about keeping your inbox empty. It’s about triaging incoming email so you know what you have to do when you close your inbox. Cut through the uncertainty, identify what’s important, then go do it.

In other words, once you find out whether the cat lives or dies, don’t put it back in the bunker.

Question: How do you triage your incoming messages? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.