Inbox Zero. It’s the holy grail of anyone who uses email as a primary form of communication. My inbox is empty right now. Completely empty. It took months to get there, mostly because I kept letting it get filled up again with complete crap. It will probably get full again, but my goal is to keep it below 10 as much as possible.
If you’re like me, you treat your inbox like a to do list. If it’s in there, it’s an actionable item, and you’ll leave it there until you can cross it off your list. (Because otherwise if you delete or archive the email, you’ll forget to do it.) Then, important emails get buried and you miss out on them.
Here are the things I’ve done over the past few weeks to get to a beautifully empty inbox.
(Note: I use Gmail and all the Google properties, including Google Calendar and Google Tasks. This has also helped keep me organized because everything is interrelated. Some of this information is based on what I can do with Gmail.)
1) Delete the crap and dreck.
Before you do anything else, go through all your email newsletters, semi-interesting advertisements, and other pieces of information you thought you’d find a few extra minutes to read. If you have’t read it by now, you’re not going to find the time. If it’s an ad, a solicitation, or a special offer you signed up for, get rid of it. This is like junk mail. You wouldn’t keep piles of junk mail and newspapers in your house “just in case,” so do the same for your inbox.
2) Create a label or folder and archive emails.
If you have important emails that you need to save about a certain project, client, or topic, create a folder, and put those emails in that folder. If you use Gmail, create a filter to apply a specific label for that project, client, or topic, and then archive it. When you need to recall it, click on that label, and all those emails will appear. If you store everything in folders, then search through that particular folder.
3) Delete or archive anything older than 2 months.
This is especially important if you’re the kind of person who saves all your emails in your inbox. I’ve known people who have more than five thousand emails in their inbox. Not their entire email folder. Their inbox. There is no reason you have to keep these handy. They’re not doing you any good, because if you’re treating your inbox like a to do list, those action items have lo-o-o-o-ng since expired. Just dump any emails you don’t need, and archive the ones you might.
4) Add actionable items to a to do list.
Copy the important information into the notes. I use Google Tasks, and there is a place for notes with each task. I can also type in specific keywords, the date, and the people involved, so I can search for that particular email later. And by archiving — Gmail has a great searchable archive that makes finding old emails a breeze — I get those things out of my inbox. Similarly, if it’s information I need to keep, I’ll copy and paste it into my Evernote so I can find it later.
If you’ve got stuff you need to take care of in the next day or two, leave those items out for now.
5) Do important actionable items right away.
By this point, you should only have a few emails left — things you have to get to right away, deadlines to meet, answers to send, appointments to schedule. I try to work in 15 minute blocks and plow through as many emails as I can in this fashion. If someone needs a reply, I send it. If I have to read something, I do it fast. Plow through all the necessary items as fast as you can, even if it means scheduling an appointment with yourself to keep that time blocked.
Important: Don’t just file actionable emails into a To Do file. That may be a real Inbox Zero trick, but to my mind, it’s cheating. You don’t just file stuff away to have an empty inbox. You actually do the things you’re getting the emails for. If you can’t do them, leave them in the inbox until you can. But if you feel the burning desire to hit Inbox Zero, then pull the emails into your To Do list, or copy and paste the information into a document on your desktop. But filing for later is not the best option.
To maintain Inbox Zero, I jealously guard my inbox from all intruders, and I treat each one like an incoming task. Here are the ways I get rid of those emails to keep them from piling up again:
- Skim and delete newsletters. Unsubscribe from any that don’t catch my interest. If I’ve received it five times and never opened it, I unsubscribe from it.
- Respond to easy questions immediately, and archive the emails. If a response is coming back, there’s no reason to keep the email in my inbox. It will pop back in soon enough when the other person replies.
- Schedule responses for appropriate times. If you have Outlook, you’ve always been able to do this. I just started using Gmail on Chrome recently, and I got the Boomerang extension, which allows me to schedule replies and responses. If I work ahead on an answer to a client or colleague but they don’t need the answer right away, I schedule my reply for a future delivery, and then archive the email.
- Filter particular emails like newsletters I want to keep, and have them delivered straight to a particular folder, bypassing the inbox. Then I can read them when I have the time, but they won’t sit in my inbox.
- Ruthlessly delete unnecessary emails. Be a jerk about it. If something doesn’t grab my interest right that second, dump it. I don’t keep it, hoping it will be relevant in a few days. If I really want to keep something, I’ll put it in a special folder called “to do eventually.” I created that folder six months ago, in the hopes that I would find time to go back to those “maybe I oughta” emails, and haven’t pulled anything out of it since. I haven’t missed anything since then either.
- Use Boomerang to have emails pop back into my inbox. If I don’t want to add something to my to do list, Boomerang can help. I can archive or hide a message and have it come back to my inbox at a certain time. When it shows up, I’ll deal with it at that moment. This is different from filing stuff into a To Do folder, mostly because I say it is. No other reason.
So that’s what I’ve done to achieve Inbox Zero, and what I’ve been doing to keep it clutter free. What do you do? Do you have any suggestions or recommendations? What about you real Inbox Zero practitioners? What are some of the best ways you’ve found to work clutter free?