On Chasing the Right “Zero”

Yesterday, Merlin Mann shared his most recent thinking on ‘Inbox Zero’. You should read the whole post, but I wanted to share this bit in particular…

“Put to best use, Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.”

Learning to “tend” (manage) multiple “inputs” (inboxes) effectively is important. However, it should not become “the work”. Anything that vies for your attention is an inbox: RSS, Email, your todo list, Twitter. With so many inputs it is not hard to see why the idea of ‘Inbox Zero’ captures people’s imaginations. It is a goal and a tangible one. However, the truth, as Merlin so eloquently explains, is not so rosy. The time and attention that is often given to achieving such a goal directly reduces the time and attention given to the things that matter.

I have been guilty of tweeting with glee when I have emptied my email inbox or read through every item in my read later list. However, in listening to Merlin talk about time and attention on his podcast Back to Work, I have come to understand that there is a better way to achieve ‘Inbox Zero’. I have learned to live with keeping a few items in my email inbox; I have learned not to fret as I keep adding items to my read later list; and I have also learned not to get stressed out if I have to keep putting off a job in my todo list.

You see, most importantly I have learned to “tend” my inboxes less frequently. I think it still panics some of my colleagues when they ask me “Have I read this or that email yet?”, and I answer “No”, explaining that my email has been closed while I have been teaching. During my lessons I am giving “zero” attention to my inboxes and 100% attention to my students. After all, that is why I am there right? So, why would I put my time and attention elsewhere?

To do “the work that really matters” you have to find focus. You have to give it the time and attention it deserves. So, please close your other inboxes and take a moment to read Merlin’s post… there is much to be gleaned from his words.

Why the rush?

Stop what you are doing.

Close your eyes and listen.

Listen to yourself breathe.

Do you hear it?

Keep listening. Listen for two whole minutes.

What happened?

Your breathing slowed, and so did your heart rate. It returned to normal.

The speed at which your heart was beating when you first began to listen was not normal.

You were breathing quicker; your heart was beating faster becuase you have bought into ‘rush culture’.

Deadlines, fast food, email, Google, notifications… all work to put you in a state where you think it’s normal to rush; to expect things to be fast; to be instant. They demand your attention and your energy.

‘Rush culture’ will leave you out of breath. It limits your ability to think, to reflect, to ponder. It raises your expectations falsely, increasing disappointment. It makes you believe that fast is best and instant is even better.

The truth is that ‘rush culture’ is distracting you from the things that matter. And perhaps more pertinently, ‘rush culture’ is bad for your health.

So ask yourself: ‘Why the rush?’

If you leave five minutes early and drive to work a little slower, will it make the journey worse?

If your food takes a few more minutes to arrive at your table, will your meal be any less enjoyable?

If you check your email twice a day instead of every five minutes, will it really make you less effective at your job?

If use a dictionary instead of Google, will the results be any different or less valid?

If you turn off notifications on your phone, will you really miss out on anything important?

The answer?


In fact, you will find that taking a slower journey to work makes you more mindful of your surroundings. You’ll take pleasure in the journey, enjoying the scenary as you travel.

You will find that saying no to fast food, not only improves your health but you begin to enjoy the wait. As the chef prepares your meal, you will have the time to reflect, or to enjoy the company of the person you are dining with.

You will find that only checking your email twice a day makes you a more productive person. You will be distracted less, allowing you to focus on ‘the work’.

You will find that using a Dictionary instead of Google, replaces the buzz of instantaneous results with a more wholesome pleasure. A pleasure that is punctuated by forgotten experiences, such as the smell and feel of the pages.

You will find that turning off notifications (even turning your phone off altogether) makes you more present; able to enjoy time with a loved one more fully.

The problem?

Instant results, fast food, constant connection, are all very appealing. It’s the appeal that is the problem.

‘Rush culture’ is like a drug, it appeals to your senses, promising the instant hit and the constant buzz. And too many of us, buy into it, without ever considering what it’s doing to our health.

There is so much to be gained from slowing down, from removing pressures and limiting distractions.

So, go back to the start, close your eyes and listen… contemplate, reflect, ask yourself: ‘Why the rush?’

Reading Productivity

Having spent more than a year improving my personal productivity, I can sum up what I’ve learned in a single sentence: “Pick one task and do it”. However, that would do a disservice to the journey and to the great people who helped me along the way through their writing on the subject. So, without wishing to encourage you to spend more time reading about productivity than being productive, here are three books that really helped me reach a place where I can stay focused on doing ‘the work’.

Focus – Leo Babauta

If I had to recommend one book this would be it. It has really made a difference in helping me become more productive. The books’ strength lies in its brevity and the fact the Leo doesn’t over do the GTD stuff. Instead, he focuses on the underlying issues that may be stopping you from doing ‘the work’. It reads well. Eloquent prose, set out in well-structured essays that challenge you to reflect deeply on the way that you prioritise and use your time. Particularly, useful was the focus on changing and replacing habits. By replacing bad habits with useful, more productive ones, I have seen a huge difference in my productivity.

Highlights include:

  • You don’t need to respond
  • Going with the flow
  • Single tasking and productivity

Keeping It Straight – Patrick Rhone

Patrick is one of my favourite writers on the web and his work translates really well to the structured, thematic nature of a book. Keeping it Straight is Patrick’s first book – a collected set of essays that deal with personal productivity, minimalism, mindfulness and motivation. Again, this is not a long read; perfect for the daily commute or for dipping into when the moment arises. This book is very personal, much of the content gleaned from Patrick’s journal, it adds a level of authenticity that I find is often missing from books of this ilk.

Highlights include:

  • Don’t Worry
  • Doing The Dishes
  • Email (And Other Things That Go “Ding”)

#uppingyourgame – Doug Belshaw

Doug is a friend who has been fantastically supportive, helping me on my blogging journey. He has also (although he may not have realised it) had a significant impact on my approach to personal productivity. His approach is a pragmatic one and as such he begins by getting to the heart of why we should care about being productive in the first place. This is refreshing, as many productivity related texts assume that the reader already has this figured out. Like the other two books, this is a well structured, well designed text, placing emphasis on the authors voice.

Highlights include:

  • What does productivity look like?
  • How to find your personal well of motivation
  • Productivity killers

As I mentioned above, it is easy to spend more time reading about productivity than actually getting on and being productive. However, while I’m on topic, I thought I would share some of the other material that has contributed to my journey. This is not an exclusive list, just a selection of the ones that come to mind as I sit writing this.

Manifesto: Inbox Zero

Idea: five.sentenc.es

Essay: Making the Clackity Noise

Essay: Cranking

Essay: The Noise

Essay: the beauty of the ellipses

Essay: Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT)

Essay: Do One Thing Well

Essay: How I Became an Early Riser

Essay: How to ‘chapter’ your life to make it more productive

Essay: The hidden power of a gift

Book: Mindfulness in Plain English

Video: Just This

Podcast: Enough: The Minimal Mac Podcast

Podcast: Back to Work


The best piece of advice I have ever been given is this:

Sit back and listen

It is very easy, particularly when you are looking for that first promotion, to feel like you need to constantly make yourself heard. So much so, that you stop listening.

Instead, sit back and listen; giving other people’s views the consideration they deserve.

  1. Nine times out of ten, when other people realise you are ‘really’ listening to them, they will respect you for it and repay you by doing the same. If you constantly cut people off, they will be offended and most likely not listen to you in return.
  2. Listening helps you to understand where others are coming from. It leaves you better informed and in a more powerful position. A position from which you can be far more influential – able to put forward your ideas in ways that are appealing and demonstrate forethought.
  3. Sometimes, when you take the time to listen, you realise that your views and ideas need to be modified. In fact sometimes you may realise that your take on a topic or idea is just plain wrong.

Some may view the third outcome negatively but I do not. If you take the time to listen before sharing your views, it is easier to shape and change them. Once they are out in the open, it is not as easy to admit you were wrong.

And remember. You can make all the noise you want but if no one is actually listening…

…then it is just noise.

Thinking Space

Where is your ‘thinking space’? The place where you order your thoughts; think things through; where the creative juices flow?

If you don’t have such a space, I recommend that you find one. Whatever it is that you do, it’s important to take the time to pause and reflect. This process can result in improved focus, increased productivity and greater creativity. Finding the space in which you do this best is therefore worth doing.

As well as becoming an early riser I have also learned to be more mindful. My interpretation of what this means is skewed, influenced by the interpretation of others, including: Patrick Rhone and Merlin Mann. However, what I have taken on board so far has really helped me to be a more focussed and creative person.

Being mindful (for me) is about removing distractions, whatever they may be, and taking the time to be at one with your thoughts; allowing ideas to percolate.

What has this got do with finding your ‘thinking space’? As I began to understand what it meant to be mindful, I began to realise that there were certain times and places in which I was able to better focus on the myriad of thoughts swirling around my mind. The first time and place where I realised this was in the shower. Free of distractions, completing a relatively mindless activity, I can sift through my tasks for the day; think through a lesson I’m going to deliver; even write (in my head) an entire blog post. The latter, resulting in a rather rushed drying of one’s body in order to get to my laptop and write it down.

Having found one space to be at one with my thoughts, I then started to actively look for others. As such I don’t have one ‘thinking space’ but rather a number of times and places where I choose to be mindful. These include:

  • Making a cup of tea: As demonstrated by Dave Caolo, the time it takes to brew and enjoy a good cup of tea is perfect for sitting and reflecting.
  • Doing the dishes: An activity I previously did not enjoy, I now actually value the thinking time that it offers.
  • Waiting in line: Rather than playing with my mobile phone I now observe my surroundings, taking in the place, the people…
  • Taking a walk: As many will attest to, taking a walk remains one of the best ways to clear your mind, clarifying things.

As with becoming an early riser, it took time for me to develop habits. Resisting the urge to check Twitter, Email, Google Reader while standing in lines or during a train journey was particularly hard. However, it has certainly been worth it, improving my focus, productivity and creativity.

Do you already have a ‘thinking space’? If so, please share it by commenting below.