How To Overcome The Challenge Of Getting To Zero

Over the past 20 years, I’ve met many managers who would like to get more organised and manage their time more effectively. As a manager, they recognise that they need to get more productive if they are going to take a more strategic approach to growing and developing their businesses.

Adapting the way you work starts with introducing your mind to some new ideas. When you are persuaded by those new ideas and benefit from applying them, you let go of some of your old ideas (beliefs) and ways of working (habits). This is analogous to the way evolution works in nature. The introduction of new characteristics into a species happens via nature constantly experimenting by replacing old genes in DNA with new genes, in order to come up with solutions that are better adaptations.  

One of the resources I regularly recommend to managers who want to improve productivity in their teams and organisations is David’s Allen book and audiobook Getting Things Done. To my knowledge, Getting Things Done (or GTD as it is commonly referred to) is the most widely followed personal productivity methodology in the world today.

However, the challenge many managers have in adopting a more systematic approach to the way they work like GTD is in getting started. You see, the challenge is that to apply the GTD methodology, you need to start by:

  1. Emptying your mind (by completing a Mind Sweep)
  2. Emptying your email inbox (at work)
  3. Emptying your email inbox (at home)
  4. Emptying your physical in-tray (at work)
  5. Emptying your physical in-tray (at home)

Collectively, these five steps comprise “getting to zero”. I have seen repeatedly what an exhilarating experience it is for people to get to zero, because it represents a moment of regaining a deep sense of calm and control. Nonetheless, many of the managers I meet have an email inbox with 3,000, 6,000, even 12,000 email messages that need to be dealt with before they can get started with improving their effectiveness at subsequent higher order levels of perspective including projects, objectives, goals, vision, values and purpose.

Yet the reality is that “getting to zero” simply presents too big a hurdle for most managers to achieve on their own. They read and listen to books like Getting Things Done, attend live or self-paced courses on productivity, get energised and excited about getting organised but ultimately give up. As they grapple with what it actually takes to properly get started and begin enjoying the rewards and benefits of an effective self-management system, they get overwhelmed. Regretfully, this loss of enthusiasm leads to further despair about the possibility of becoming the Captain & Commander of their own domain.

Moreover, unless you have designed a core information architecture of how you plan to organise, store and retrieve reference information, you won’t be clear or confident how to file all of the information sitting in your inbox and in-tray that you may need to refer back to at some point in the future.

Furthermore, you need to make a range of important decisions about the right filing equipment for storing your information by answering key questions like:

  • Do I still need to store any documents physically or can I go completely paperless?
  • If I still need to store some documents physically, where and how should I store them?
  • If I want to go paperless, how will I easily create digital scanned copies of physical documents, from anywhere at any time?
  • If I did go paperless, what platform would I use to store those digital copies?
  • Assuming I do go paperless, how do I know I will have enough hard drive storage space to accommodate all those scanned documents?

In addition, some of the managers I have coached who have migrated to paperless have then encountered technology issues. For example, the Smart Sync functionality of Dropbox that stores some or all of your personal files in the cloud versus locally on your computer sometimes seems to confuse your computer into thinking all of those files are stored locally on your computer, leading your computer to panic and think that it has run out of hard disk space. As more and more tech support falls back onto individual users, managers need to know how to fix these kinds of glitches so they can reassure their trusty PC that it is not actually having a memory meltdown.

Essentially, more and more incoming stuff (email, physical documents and scanned documents) collectively need to be taken through a five-step sequential process that involves:

  1. Capturing: identifying what is true now, also referred to by David Allen as “collect, “clear” and “corral”
  2. Clarifying: focusing your attention on what has your attention, mind management vs time management, thinking and decision making, more encompassing than simply “processing”
  3. Organising: where things are suits what they mean to you, determining what things mean to you and classifying them accordingly into categories and contexts
  4. Reflecting: engaging with your “system” with sufficient focus to absorb the information in a way consistent with what the data means to you
  5. Engaging: staying in control will ultimately be a function of how you manage to allocate your resources, doing the thing you should be doing at this moment

Having sent consultants out to peoples’ homes and offices over the past two decades to assist them with “getting to zero” 1-1, in 2020 nLIVEn launched a group program called “The Inbox Zero Workshop”. This program is as suitable and relevant for front line employees as it is for CEOs.

You can learn more and register at:

The good news is that we have also opened a second workshop on 28/10/20 which is now also available for registration:

Co-facilitated by productivity enthusiasts Glenn A. Williams (from nLIVEn) and Matt Cowdroy (from Think Productive, Sydney), participation in each workshop is limited to 20 participants. So, book early to avoid disappointment.

We anticipate that this workshop will be offered on a quarterly basis moving forward.

The Inbox Zero Workshop offers a hybrid delivery model – i.e. some participants will be physically in the room (at nLIVEn in Melbourne) and some other participants (e.g. including the interstate co-presenter Matt Cowdroy) will be attending virtually via Zoom. 

Everyone coming to the office of nLIVEn will bring their laptop or desktop computer with them, plus a wired or wireless headset, that they’ll be using to participate in the sessions of the workshop via Zoom. We have plenty of space so everyone will be able to spread out. You will be applying what you are learning in real time during several sessions of the one-day workshop, ensuring you successfully finish the day with your inbox at zero, your personal computer smiling and you feeling back in control.

To help with social distancing, you’ll have the option of either self-catering or us providing you with lunch on the day. If you elect to attend virtually, we’ll even have lunch supplies sent to you via Uber Eats.


In closing, I’d like you to reflect on the following quote from Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance:

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”

Whether you are a politician, board member, CEO, manager, business owner, consultant or any other agent of change, the state of your inbox critically impacts your capacity to successfully lead change and make systemic improvements in your organisation and life. 

One of the pleasures I enjoy in life is listening to hi-fi quality music via the streaming service Tidal. Sometimes I use speakers but in a household with children, I often find myself using noise cancelling headphones to remove noise that interferes with my listening experience.

All the incoming stuff (email, physical documents and scanned documents) collectively creates noise in our worlds. The more you can remove that noise, the deeper you can listen with your whole body to what is going on (both inside you and around you), the more accurately you can sense and respond; doing the thing you should be doing at this moment. This is particularly important in disruptive times, when you find yourself more easily agitated and irritated due to the level of underlying uncertainty you face. One of the greatest benefits of “getting to zero” on a daily or weekly basis is that it leaves you ready for anything.

If you are committed to making progress on your productivity and already have your inbox under control, join us for one of our free upcoming Getting Things Done For Managers Meetup events at:

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