Ignore Your Inbox

11/14/2013 01:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

If email is the first thing you read every morning, then you are not maximizing your productivity.

Don't take it personal. I know you're reading your email first thing every morning because you are a sophisticated, intelligent, hard-working person who is committed to doing a good job. And you're simply trying to maximize your efficiency of taking (literally) every waking moment you have and putting it to use in an attempt to be more efficient; I can relate. But efficiency isn't your problem... Priority Dilution is your problem.

Priority Dilution is a new form of procrastination I identified in Take the Stairs that affects the very people who you think wouldn't be procrastinators: the chronic overachievers. It has nothing to do with being lazy, apathetic or disengaged -- like traditional procrastination -- but it's the same net result: You delay on the day's most important activities by allowing your attention to shift to less important but perhaps more urgent tasks. Nothing contributes more to Priority Dilution than checking your inbox first thing in the morning.

True or False: There are a lot of emails in your inbox right now that are relating to issues that are not the most important thing you need to get done today. If you have more than 10 emails in your inbox then that is absolutely true (and I'm pretty sure you've had 10 emails come in just since you started reading this article).

If that's true, then by looking at your inbox first thing in the morning you are inviting distraction to control your day. Less the discipline to ignore your inbox temporarily, you are allowing your priorities to dilute because you are opening yourself to the possibility of your focus to being spread across items that are less significant. Having even one precious moment of intention lost early on can cost you your entire day if you get focused on the wrong thing.

If your initial response to "ignore your inbox" is "you're crazy," "no way," "that's impossible," or something similar it's because your inbox has control over you. If that is you, then chances are you feel a compulsion to check email at every spare moment of every day; again, I can relate. The very thought of not having your inbox dictate how you spend your time gives you anxiety -- that's because by allowing your inbox to control your time you've been able to stop thinking about what you should be spending your time on. Your inbox shouldn't define what is important enough to have your attention, though -- you should.

So, ignore your inbox. Don't ignore it forever, but ignore it each day until you accomplish the day's most important priorities (as defined by you). Until you accomplish the day's most important priorities, everything else -- especially email -- is a distraction. In fact, a priority is simply any task that rises to a level of importance that is beyond the convenience of what your schedule allows for.

Chances are, there are more things in your life that you need to ignore in addition to your inbox. But for us people-pleasers its incredibly painful and difficult to give ourselves permission to ignore certain things because we literally fear telling people "no." We know there are things that we shouldn't be spending our time on in a given day but we do them because we feel guilty, we feel that no one else can do them, we don't want to let anyone down, or because we feel that we have to do them just because we were asked. But we're not doing them because they are the priorities.

What most of us are missing is the permission to ignore -- the permission to say no. The key insight to realize however is that we are always saying "no" to something. When we are saying yes to one activity for one person we are simultaneously saying no to everything else in our life. You already are ignoring things; you're just not being selective and conscious about what you're ignoring. For example, saying yes to your inbox often means you're saying no to your real priorities.

I'm telling you that it will be okay if leave your inbox alone for a short time while you focus on the things that you know really need to get done. I'm inviting you to put off the things that don't matter so you can focus on the things that do. I'm encouraging you to put the small things temporarily on hold while you work on the big things.

We are either going to directly say "no" to the things we don't care about, or we will be inadvertently saying "no" to the things we do care about. So I hereby grant you the permission to ignore.

Really, at the end of the day, is your goal to get the most significant things done in your life? Or is your goal to have an empty inbox?

You choose.

Rory Vaden is co-founder of Southwestern Consulting, a self-discipline strategist and speaker, and New York Times bestselling author of "Take the Stairs."

For more by Rory Vaden, click here.