Zero base is a GTD term for having fully processed collection buckets with no items remaining. An effective norm for getting back to zero base is every 24 to 48 hours.
One of the first problems I encountered after quitting my last day job to work at home was letting my in-basket and email inbox accumulate for up to four days without processing it. Part of that slowdown had to do with my own laziness, but as a freelance writer, there’s far less input to deal with than typical office work. At the day job, I didn’t have the option of allowing my email and intray to build up for several days, since there would have been negative consequences.
As soon as I made it a rule to never go to sleep without getting to zero base, I found that the rest of my workflow sped up dramatically. Why the difference?
What zero base is and isn’t
Zero base doesn’t mean that every incoming item is done; only that it’s processed. Once your inbox is empty (I’ll use “inbox” to represent all collection buckets, physical and digital), you know that you’ve:
- Completed any two-minute items
- Filed any general reference material
- Delegated some items to the appropriate party
- Deferred some items on your calendar or tickler file
- Deleted anything not worth keeping
- Queued any longer-than-two-minute reading
Longer-than-two-minute reading would include any items in your @Action email folder/label, items in a general Read/Review or Action Support physical folder, or content in a project-labeled support folder (e.g. Office Renovation). As you’re processing each item, once you’ve determined that something will take more than two minutes to read, you deliberately file it electronically or physically to avoid getting lured into one task that might divert you from completing the processing your collection buckets down to zero. This is the inverse of the Two Minute Rule.
Once you’re at zero base, you’ve figured out precisely what to do next on everything that you could possibly be doing. There’s no more guesswork involved. You still have to read your longer emails, but you’ve at least scanned them during processing to have an idea of which ones are a priority. By contrast, when you have a pile of unprocessed paperwork and email, there’s no way to know if you might be missing anything important or urgent. It’s always better to know what you’re not doing than wonder what you’re not doing.
Eliminating a primary bottleneck
If the GTD five-phase workflow of collect-process-organize-review-do is seen in a “theory of constraints” fashion, any deficiency in one phase reduces the entire throughput of the system. You can’t process something you haven’t collected yet, you can’t review something you haven’t processed into your task management system, and so on.
Most of the phases are fairly mechanical, but processing — determining what to do next with what you’ve collect — requires serious cognitive effort. Maintaining empty inbox is the first reality check for ensuring regular throughput. As David Allen once told Merlin Mann, “If you’ve got anything in a ‘huh’ stack, you’re procrastinating.” In other words piles are a good indicator that a person’s workflow is backed up unnecessarily.
When I mentioned resolving never going to sleep being getting to zero base, that doesn’t mean I checked my email before going to sleep. It means that the last time my email was downloaded, I processed it to zero before shutting down my email client. For this to be effective, manual downloading is a must. Real-time notifications and scheduled downloads are a treadmill to nowhere.
Once you see an empty inbox and keep it empty until you’re ready to process again at your discretion, you no longer scramble your brains re-sorting which items need special attention and which ones don’t. You no longer have to split your attention between answering your current email and emergency scanning, because you’ve already looked at everything you’ve processed at least once.
A note on emergency scanning
Processing an inbox is done sequentially, one item at a time, typically taking between 30 and 90 minutes in the morning, and less time throughout the day once the morning bulk has been processed. If things have accumulated to the point where a potentially urgent item might be sitting in the pile, it’s best to do an emergency scan of the whole pile prior to formally processing it. You’re not doing two minute items, extracting next actions, or anything other than sifting through your paperwork and email headers to see if anything mission critical needs immediate attention. If you need to do an emergency scan, go ahead and get it out of the way so that you don’t interrupt yourself in the middle of processing.
(Photo credit: Jose C Silva)