Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Working from Zero Base

by Andre · 6 Comments

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.

Eliminating guesswork

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.

Eliminating distractions

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)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity

Comments

  • J.J.No Gravatar // Oct 29, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Processing an inbox is done sequentially, one item at a time, typically taking between 30 and 90 minutes in the morning…

    I don’t really agree with spending to much time checking mails in the morning. If possible, break it down to several parts – i.e. spend 15 minutes in the morning, then another 15 in the afternoon and etc.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong to spend much time on the processing part but some people will be distracted by other things like checking newsletters, notification of facebook profile updates from friends in their inbox.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    I think there are two problems with splitting up processing rather than continuing to zero. First, you lose the efficiency of batch processing. Each time you start processing, it takes a few minutes to reach peak concentration — let’s say five minutes for every 15-minute session. Four processing sessions during the day would mean 20 minutes lost to immersion time instead of five minutes by handling everything in one sitting. And the time it takes to process to zero is variable. Some days it might take less than 30 minutes in the morning to process down to zero, especially as your processing chops improve with practice. Once you’ve got the morning batch out of the way, it’s not uncommon to only have a few new incoming intray items to process every couple of hours, and less than a screenful of email. This amount of “stuff” can usually be processed in 15 minutes (again, not necessarily handled, just processed).

    Second, processing is fundamentally different than checking (emergency scanning would be an example of checking). When you sit down to process your email, with each message you’re asking yourself what it is, whether it’s actionable/reference/trash, etc. You’re not just looking at something and doing nothing with it. Checking is something that should happen in between processing sessions, not during them. No one needs to process Facebook notifications. Newsletters, if processed rather than checked, would be placed in a Read/Review folder for later reading.

  • CharlieNo Gravatar // Nov 4, 2008 at 10:33 am

    When I was doing more creative, independent work, I would always delay checking/processing email until about an hour or so before lunch. I did this because I found that email scripted my day to be reactive rather than proactive and that nothing in my Inbox actually had an effect on what I needed to do for the day.

    Things changed when I took my new job, but mostly I still set my own course.

    What really stuck out to me here was:
    “For this to be effective, manual downloading is a must. Real-time notifications and scheduled downloads are a treadmill to nowhere.”

    I don’t think people realize that how much of a toll the rapid refocusing takes on their workflow. Being able to reference items in your inbox without having the ding, beep, or bounce is critical – even if no messages will come, the fact that you’re anticipating it weighs on you.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 4, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    @Charlie: When I was doing more creative, independent work, I would always delay checking/processing email until about an hour or so before lunch. I did this because I found that email scripted my day to be reactive rather than proactive and that nothing in my Inbox actually had an effect on what I needed to do for the day.

    Inbox processing first thing in the morning matters more in an office than as a free agent. I could (but don’t) go two or three days without opening my email these days, with relatively minor consequences. That wasn’t an option when I had a boss, coworkers and customers to deal with.

    I keep mail from scripting my day by making and offloading decisions about what to do with each item I process into an external system, so there’s no residue; otherwise it goes into an @Action folder for later handling at my discretion. I don’t feel the need to react to anything in real time unless it can be thrown out or handled in under two minutes. But either way works: either avoid opening your inbox entirely until a designated time, or process it down to zero. The danger is the middle ground of “checking” email — where messages are looked at without being processed methodically.

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