Inbox (Nearly) Zero

Reading Time: 17 Minutes
Video Time: 1 Hour; Or 22 Minutes

I was first introduced to the concept of Inbox Zero by watching the above video of Merlin Mann speaking at Google.

It’s an hour-long video, so watch it only when you have the time. Otherwise, read some of his articles on his website. It’s a great video that sparked me to come up with my own system that worked for me. The beginning is an intro and the end is some great Q&A. For the real 22-minute long meat of the video, jump to 10:21 and watch until 32:27.

Before, I had never really thought about email. Sure, I used Gmail every day, in fact many times a day, but I didn’t think about how I used it. I, probably like many of you, was guilty of everything Merlin spoke about in the video. I had three email accounts, each open in separate tabs, which I constantly flipped through and checked every five minutes, no matter what I was doing. Even worse, I had no idea what I even had in any of my three inboxes. I wasted too much time scrolling through thousands of emails and information I no longer needed, just to find that one email or small detail that I was looking for.

I never thought of it as a problem, because I simply never thought of it. But as soon as I saw the video, I knew that I needed a change.

The first trick is in knowing that there is more to your email than just the inbox. You have an archive: a boundless, limitless purgatory for everything you have ever received, which is easily subject to easy recall thanks to the handy search bar at the top of the screen. You can reach your archive, in Gmail at least, by clicking on All Mail link on the left sidebar.

At first, I followed Merlin’s advice almost to the letter. And then I evolved the system to fit my own needs, and so should you.

My first step was to purge. No, I didn’t go to the extreme of declaring “Email Bankruptcy” as Mann mentions in the Q&A session. Instead, I followed his actual recommendation of “Email DMZ.” I went through the first 150 or so emails in my inbox and starred the ones that I read but hadn’t yet acted on. This was somewhere around 50 items. I then selected all of my over 8,000 emails in my inbox, and archived it all. Every last email. I went back into my starred section and marked all of these as unread, and un-starred them, putting them back into my inbox. Then the fun started.

Gmail makes it extremely easy to get your inbox empty, or at least nearly so. The next trick is in making it a daily goal to get your inbox down to zero items. You might not exactly get there, but if you aim for it, you will work hard to reach it. You do this by taking each email, and applying some sort of action to it.

Some people use folders, labels, stars, flags, and any other kind of markings in order to help them see what they need to do with their emails. I chose to skip this step. I don’t like the idea of taking the time to read an email, then figuring out what you need to do with it, then figuring out what kind of label you want to apply to it, and finally going through all of the clicks necessary to actually label it, all just to leave it in your inbox without having done any real action to it and go on to the next one. I’d much rather go from step two to actually accomplishing the task needed and getting rid of it by archiving it away forever.

Instead, I just use the search feature as needed. Gmail’s search is extremely powerful and thorough. Type in any word or name into the search bar, and it searches through subjects, entire messages, senders and recipients. Rather than grouping all of your emails about meetings, and then archiving them, just archive away and search for “meeting” or one of the attendees’ names later. That is, if you even need to go back and find that email ever again.

Of course, the types of emails, and what actions you can do with them, depend entirely on what emails you are receiving. Here are some of the most common types of emails I get, and what I do with them:

Events, Meetings, and Appointments
These used to be one of my biggest offenders of inbox clutter. I would get an email about a meeting or event, and keep it in my inbox. Then when naturally I forgot the time or place of the meeting, I would have to search through a sea of other emails about meetings and try to find it. This wasted too much time, and really never worked. Now, as soon as I read an email about an appointment, I quickly put all these details into a calendar. Use whatever works for you, and whatever you can keep using with the most ease. For me, that’s Google Calendar. Gmail makes this even easier by having a nice little popup on the right sidebar that automatically fills in whichever details about the event it detects from the message. Now all the info you need is easily accessible right in your calendar, which you should always have with you.

Subscriptions and Junk
These used to take up a majority of emails that I received. And I never seemed to read them anyway. Not anymore. Whenever a subscription or mass email comes into my inbox that I would normally just click on, or maybe delete, I scroll through it all the way to the bottom and click on the nice little link that says “Unsubscribe.” No more useless junk subscriptions wasting my time and precious inbox space.

The same thing goes for credit card statements, bill pay reminders, and the like. I go to the individual websites and change my email preferences to get rid of the monthly emails. Instead of getting a message about them, I set a monthly Google Calendar reminder for the first of each month and a second reminder a few days before the bill is due.  Or if you want some sort of record in your email, but don’t want to keep them in your inbox, open up the email and hit “Filter Messages like This,” and have them skip your inbox and archive them automatically.

And what do I do about Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites? I completely ban them from any part of my email. I changed my preferences on all of these sites to get rid of any and all emails. And that was before I quit Facebook. Getting constant real-time notifications about who follows you or comments on your profile picture might be great, but only if you are scheduling time for social media. It has no place constantly bombarding your email, especially if you are at least attempting to get some work done. Leave the notifications to the sites themselves.

Things to Do
A box of emails functioning as a makeshift to-do list is another common cause of inbox clutter. Rather than having a bunch of separate emails to click through and lose track of, export these into an actual to-do list. Whether it’s a long-term goal or just a short-term task, act accordingly and copy them over into the tool of your choice. Whether it’s a paper planner, Google Tasks, Reminders for iPhone, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, or any of the other countless to-do applications, try out and decide on a dedicated system to keep track of your responsibilities. This puts them all into a single easy to remember place, and makes you more likely to get things done.

Question and Response
For many, a group of emails asking a quick question can translate into hours spent on finding answers and responding. While there is no sure fire way to speed this up, the best way to handle this is to just dive in. It’s also possible to expedite the process through tackling these in batches and using form responses. Template or form response emails, while not the most personalized, can be used for common questions you may receive. These canned responses can be as short as a sentence, or as long as a few paragraphs. This is completely up to you, if you even use it, depending on your needs and situation. Alternatively, limiting the length of your responses to two to each will help make sure you don’t spend too much time typing away. Otherwise, just collect the necessary information, make any necessary notes, and respond away. The Gmail Labs feature Send and Archive saves a couple of clicks per email, and speeds up the job.

Notes and Changes
These are emails which just let you know a quick burst of information that you can read, acknowledge, jot a note or two wherever applicable, and archive. These messages are quick and easy to deal with, and require minimal action.

The final trick is in lessening the amount of time spent working on email. Check email less. Scheduling email usage helps to free up your time. Doing email in batches speeds up the process of going through all the actionable items once per session, and repeating the same steps. Start by limiting checking the inbox to once an hour. This gets rid of any constant live-updating feeds. Keeping email tabs open is the ultimate time-suck, and will destroy any potential of getting things done.

After all of this, email becomes a tool to get things done instead of something to do. You only see the things that you have to act on, and then you simply act as needed. This especially does wonders for your smartphone. If you’re waiting for someone or something and you subconsciously pull out your phone and check your email, there’s a short list of actionable items you can see, get done, and then archive. Nothing to sort through or skip: just pure action and productivity.

But while it’s not good to have a massively cluttered inbox, it is equally important not to get stressed out about having some emails still left in your inbox at the end of the day. While the goal is zero, it’s not necessary. Nearly Zero is good too. As long as everything gets done at some point, and little energy and effort is wasted, you’re in good shape. Relax and enjoy being productive. It’s a great feeling.

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