Brazilian Jiu Jitsu caught on with the advent of cage fighting in the early ’90s. Now, some 20 years later, we associate this martial art with the brute strength and violence of Ultimate Fighting Championship television shows. But the core practices of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu don’t only belong in the cage. We can apply them to other things, too, like better email management.
The beauty of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) comes from combining three core principles: patience, control and efficiency. These principles can be applied to your email management practices.
To be successful in BJJ, the fighter must always keep two solid points on the ground at all times, and then have one free point in order to manage his opponent — thus becoming a stable triangle. (In geometry, the most stable shape is a triangle.) The two grounded points are what set the basis for controlling any movement your opponent can throw at you. Think of any incoming movement from your opponent as energy. You can manage the incoming force in one of three ways: you can stop the motion, you can deflect the motion, or you can move with the motion.
Now, let’s take these fundamentals and extrapolate them to email management!
Stopping Your Opponent
You basically have three kinds of emails. Junk mail that needs to be tossed, read emails that need filling, and unread emails that require some sort of action. These are your opponents.
Now don’t panic, remember your mantra: patience, control and efficiency. Start by getting rid of all the emails that have absolutely no value to you. Toss them. Remember our BJJ principle of efficiency: Get to the source of the zero-value emails. Be it Facebook updates or useless forwards from family and friends, stop them dead in their tracks. If you can’t turn them off at their source, make use of filters to route those emails directly to the trash. By making them bypass the inbox, you are practicing the art of stopping your opponent.
Deflecting Your Opponent
Now that we have the easy stuff out of the way, let’s start cleaning house with some organization of our read emails. I use Gmail, so I’m going to describe my labeling method, which uses Gmail’s labels, but you could use folders in any other client.
The great thing about Gmail is that there is no limit to the number of labels you can apply to any one message. That said, you will discover (as I did) that having too many labels just makes you a labeling junkie. Make use of your patience with this process because your labeling system will probably need to change over time. Remember that efficiency is the ultimate goal, so make use of global labels. What I mean by that is having a set of labels that can be used across multiple emails, regardless of who or what they are associated with — don’t make them too specific. For example, I use a “Peeps deets” label for any email I am sent containing a person’s contact information. (Don’t be afraid to use your own odd lingo for labels. After all, it’s your system.) Now start smacking those labels on your read emails and archiving them! Start with the easy stuff like friends and family, for example. With a system for organization in place and read emails archived, you are practicing the art of deflecting your opponent.
Moving With Your Opponent
Now we have the base of our triangle set: Our inbox is under control. We just need to deal with those unread emails that require some sort of action on your part (those in your inbox now and those still to arrive). Let’s get hands-on and start moving with our opponent.
You need to create a standard for how you handle each email that requires action. A good rule of thumb is if any action required of you can be done in less than two minutes, just go ahead and do it. That one simple rule will keep you from getting bogged down with a lot of emails clogging up your inbox that kill your flow. That said, don’t send off quick, knee-jerk responses to those 2-minute or less emails. To get the most of the momentum you are generating with your productivity, you will need to give every email your full attention. Be sure to respond completely and concisely, so that the most important information can easily be digested.
Moving With Your Opponent — Multi-action Emails
OK, so how about emails that are going to take longer than two minutes to deal with — the multi-action emails? First thing’s first: Open the email and identify the actions that are being requested of you. Next, create a label for the project and apply it to the email. This is the same label you will apply to any other emails that will be associated with the project. Now, identify your first most doable action to get the momentum going on the project. Does the action fit the 2-minute rule? If yes, do it, and get the ball rolling. If not, ask yourself two questions. First, am I the best person to be doing this? If not, send off an email to the person best fit for the action item and apply a global label of “Waiting On” to the project email to remind yourself that a response is necessary to keep the project going. Second, can this wait till later? You must decide when is the best time to handle the action item. If you need to handle the action now, apply the gloabl label “Action” to the email so you have a visual reminder that you are doing something with that email. If you can defer it until later because it is not a priority, apply the global label of “Review” to remind yourself that you will need to deal with it later.
That’s it! Now start the process over again, each time juggling only as much as you can handle. Keep up on your emails labeled with “Action,” follow up on your emails labeled with “Waiting On,” and keep an eye on those marked “Review.”
Your inbox should now be empty. As the emails start to pour back in, it is easy to see where you left off on a project, thanks to the labels, and you can easily get going on the next step of the project. You have truly mastered your opponent.
Oscar Avellaneda is a photographer and year-round cyclist living in Alaska.