Inbox zero - the promised land.

A phrase first coined by Merlin Mann back in 2006, inbox zero refers to the state of freeing your brain of email anxiety by keeping your inbox empty (or nearly empty) on an ongoing basis. In our non-stop always-connected world, who doesn't want to know more about how to achieve such a state?

In fact, it's simpler than it sounds. By implementing a few tactics inspired by time management classics like Getting Things Done (GTD, for those of you in the know) and leveraging the latest technology at your disposal, an empty inbox is well within your grasp.

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What Inbox zero isn't

Before we start, lets quickly bust a myth. Inbox zero doesn't mean you magically find the time to respond to all of the emails that have been sitting in your inbox unread or flagged for months. Instead it means that, on a regular basis, you process every email in your inbox and decide the next action you are going to take.

How is this better than letting things sit in your inbox?

For a start, your inbox will no longer be a home for the ongoing stress of open loops. Open loops are things that may require action, but you haven't yet determined what to do with them. Your mind doesn't like open loops and it will constantly try to revisit them until they are closed. Not only is this inefficient (how many times do you have to think about that email which only requires a 2 minute response), it is a cause of stress. The act of deciding your next action for any particular email closes this loop. There is no longer an unknown, merely a to-do.

In addition, the organisational system you choose for these to-dos will enable you to prioritise, delegate and delay acting (all things which are more difficult, though not totally impossible, from an email inbox). As these actions form the basis of almost all modern time management systems, making them easier to do is a goal worth pursuing.

Finally, it just feels awesome! Give it a go, I'm sure you'll agree.

The email processing process

In order to process an email, you must decide what action you are going to take after reading it. While the leading time management books and blogs give the options available different labels, the options identified are almost always identical. I find them easiest to remember using the 4Ds:

  • Delete - Do you need to do anything in response to the email? If the answer is no, just delete it straight away (or, if you may need to refer to it later, archive it). This is the most powerful tool in an inbox zero practitioner's library, but also one of the hardest to master. It requires you to be honest with yourself and, in some cases, ruthless about what is a good use of your valuable time.
  • Do - If the action that is required after reading an email takes less than 2 minutes, you will spend more time and energy recording it and remembering to do it than you would if you completed it straight away. So we have a simple rule: if a response or other follow-up action will take less than 2 minutes, do it straight away. Just make sure to turn off your email notifications before you commit to doing this (see below).
  • Delegate - At this point, you will be left with emails that require an action which will take longer than 2 minutes. Your next consideration should be whether you are the right person to do this action at all. To determine this you will need to assess the importance of the task to your goals, who else is available to do it, the speed and quality of the output you can expect from them and whether any training investment is worthwhile (delegation often doesn't save time until a similar task has been delegated to the same person a number of times and you've had the opportunity to provide feedback). Delegation is a topic that deserves a lot more space than is available here. For now, simply make sure that you consider it as an option before you add an action to your to-do list.
  • Defer - You are now left with emails that require actions that should be added to your to-do list or calendar. When you do so, make sure to describe the action in enough detail, think about the priority and urgency of the follow-up action, and add details that will enable you to find the email which prompted you to take this action. If it is unlikely that you will complete the action during the course of the day, it is good practice to send a holding email. This simple action makes you appear more responsive and takes little time: simply state what you plan to do and when you expect to next send an update.

In order to make email processing as efficient as possible and avoid the curse of context switching, you'll want to tackle your emails in batches. This means turning off all notifications you receive as an email arrives and any distracting indicators that emails are sitting there and waiting for you (that big red number or closed envelope in your notifications tray attracts your attention more than you might imagine). Worried that you will leave your boss or client in the lurch? Set reminders to check your emails hourly. Give it a go and review the results after a week. You might be surprised by how little other people notice your change in email answering habits!

The tools you need

There are two main tools that you will need to keep a clean inbox.

The first is a tool to record and organise the next actions you identify as you sweep through your emails. This is typically handled with a to-do list, sometimes with the help of a calendar. The key to this tool is that you actually use it to organise and decide what you do next- otherwise you'll just shift the stress of your inbox to your memory. In short, whatever tool you choose must be reviewed and updated regularly. While some to-do list tools have useful extra features, almost anything can do the job. You can even use a plain notepad as long as you have a suitable system in place (call it a bullet journal, if you must).

The second is a tool to speed up your review of new emails and retrieval of useful information from old emails. This is where Gmail comes in: while it isn't the only powerful free email client, it is probably the best. Even if you use another email provider, chances are you can use gmail to manage those emails. While the tips below can be replicated for other tools (and I'll look to do so myself soon), the speed and power of Google's search capabilities are invaluable when it comes to keeping a clean inbox. This brings us nicely on to the first tip.

The fastest way to inbox zero: search

Having watched a lot of my colleagues and friends attempt to take control of their inbox, the most common approach I see is to create a number of folders (normally in a logical tree structure) and begin running through their emails from most recent to oldest and filing each one appropriately (normally without their to-do list or calendar to hand or open).

The main problem with this approach is that it is based on an incorrect premise: that you need to file emails to be able to find them easily at a later date. In fact, the easiest way to find an email in gmail is to search for it, just look at the options at your disposal:

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Not that you'll need all of those options. Most of the time, the basic search functionality is good enough to find what you're looking for with fewer than 5 key presses:

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Still not convinced? Try it out for yourself. Think of an email (or even an attachment) you'd like to retrieve then use the search bar to try and find it. Remember that the preview dropdown includes the top suggestions, but you can also press return to run a full search. Is the email still not there? Press the down arrow in the search bar to see the advanced options to refine your search.

How to do the first big clear out

Keep on playing with the search until you are comfortable that you'll be able to find any email you want using it. You're now ready to take the plunge: clearing your inbox without filing any emails!

archive your old emails without looking at them

The first step in this process is to archive all stale emails without even looking at them. A stale email is an email that you are unlikely to revisit without an external prompt (after all, if you have an external prompt you can search for the email). The cut-off date for an email to be considered stale will depend on your circumstances, but it is normally somewhere between 1 week and 1 month ago. Whatever date you choose, you can search for older emails by typing before:yyyy/mm/dd in the search bar (where yyyy/mm/dd is the cut-off date you choose in the US format). You can now select all emails matching this search by pressing the dropdown in the checkbox above your emails, selecting 'All' then clicking 'Select all conversations that match this search'. See below for an example:

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All you have left to do is to mark all messages as read (the open envelope icon) and then archive them (the folder icon with the down arrow).

Pat yourself on the back. You're now left with (at most) a month's worth of emails to process. Take a break, make yourself a coffee, grab your to-do list and calendar and settle in to practice the 4Ds (have you forgotten about them already?) on your remaining emails.

labels are the better folders

While there is no shortcut to tackling the remaining emails, it is worth quickly addressing the other problem with the folders that are commonly created as inboxes are cleared. Setting aside the fact that search will often be the best method for finding any email, you simply won't know the folders you need until you recognise a pattern in your email searching. There are many logically consistent ways to file an email. The one (or two or three) that are right for you will not become apparent unless you pay attention to your most common searches.

Luckily, the implementation of folders in gmail are labels. What's the difference between a label and a folder? Simply put, an email can have multiple labels while it can only sit in one folder.

As you are working through your remaining emails (and afterwards), pay attention to searches that you are performing often. Are these searches causing you to repeat yourself or some other kind of admin pain? If not (after all, Google will remember your recent searches and suggest these to you as you begin a search), there's no need for labels and filters.

If you are starting to feel some pain, after you have completed a search click the dropdown button in the search panel and click 'Create filter'. You will now see the following screen:

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Notice the option 'Apply a label'. From this dropdown you will be able to create and assign a label to emails that match this search. All you have to do is select an appropriate name, then click create filter. Et voila, you have yourself a shortcut for finding emails like these in the future.

A clean inbox is just the beginning

So you now have a clean inbox - it feels great, doesn't it? Enjoy this feeling and use it as motivation to practice the 4Ds of email processing. After all, inbox zero is a neverending process and one that we are constantly improving.

Have tips of your own for getting to or staying at inbox zero? Reply to this post and make sure to check out our future posts on this and other productivity topics.