— Dane Harrigan (@daneharrigan) December 18, 2012
For the majority of my time at RedMonk, my Inbox has been a major problem. Rather than a useful tool connecting me to the outside world, it’s been a sinkhole of blood, sweat and tears. Inbox zero not only wasn’t on the radar, it was laughably impossible. Not that I’m alone in this; the mere existence of so many different approaches to email productivity is evidence enough that issues with email are systemic. In some cases, they’re bad enough to create a second Inbox and thereby a second problem in Facebook/Twitter/etc messages.
While I’ve examined a number of the different email methodologies in varying level of detail over the years, and even tried a few, none got past the experimental stage. The first one to appear workable for my usage was outlined in Keith Rarick’s post “Inbox Zero for Life.” After a month following it, it’s no exaggeration to say that this system, with an assist from a few tools I’ll describe, has changed my workday for the better. Though I know some people like to geek out on them, I am generally not a fan of productivity methodologies – process, as a rule, holds little interest for me. I’m documenting this one only because it’s worked for me.
Here’s how I got to Inbox Zero.
Step 0: Commit to the Program (i.e. Gmail)
The methodology probably doesn’t absolutely require you to strictly use the Gmail UI, but it unquestionably helps. This was relatively easy in my case, because on my Linux workstation I’ve always used the web UI, but on the Mac it meant abandoning Sparrow. Which itself has been abandoned with the project creator having left for Google. So ok, done.
To use the UI effectively, however, one has to heavily leverage the shortcut keys. The quickest way I found to learn them was the Chrome Extension Keyrocket: whenever you do something in Gmail using the mouse, it will pop up the equivalent key combination. Within a few days I was serviceable with just the keyboard; after a few weeks it’s second nature to the extent that things I can’t do via the keyboard are irritating.
The program also requires that you not use Priority Inbox. Given my issues with it, this was not a huge sacrifice.
Step 1: Nuke It From Orbit, It’s the Only Way to Be Sure
The most important directive of Inbox Zero for Life (IZFL) is to treat your Inbox as a to do list to be triaged. To assist with this I leveraged Mailstrom.co, which provides you with different lenses to view your Inbox: by date, by size, by sender and so on.
First I deleted what I considered to be dead weight: mailing list traffic, automated marketing messages, social network notifications – you get the picture.
The next step was archiving older traffic. Nat Friedman’s recommendation was to archive everything older than two weeks; I opted instead for two months.
Everything this left in my Inbox was processed with “
se” (star & archive), “
e” (archive), “
m” (mute – though be careful of this one) or “
!” (report as spam). This two month backlog took a few days to sift through, but eventually I was left with a sorted, triaged and most importantly – empty – Inbox.
Step 3: If it Moves, Shoot It
With a brand new clean Inbox, the most important thing is to keep it that way. That means processing email every so often, where processing means emptying it. Reply and archive messages that are simple, star and archive the items that require follow up and archive or report as spam everything else. Adhering strictly to this process has kept me at Inbox Zero since February 5th.
As for the starred messages, when you have spare cycles during the day, switch to your Starred messages – “
gs” – and tackle what you can.
Step 4: I blew up the building. Why? Because you made a phone call.
One of the most important parts of this process is to turn off mobile notifications. Coincidentally, I had done this prior following my holiday vacation. If there’s just one thing you take away from this process, it should be this one. Nothing will make a more significant difference in your day to day life than deciding to process email on your schedule, rather than as it arrives. It will also help you process email more effectively, because you’ll be processing email when you’re actually capable of addressing it – which is typically inefficient on a smartphone.
And worst case, if you’re waiting on an incoming email? Pull it down manually if need be.
“Doesn’t this just create another Inbox to monitor, with starred messages?”
Maybe for some of you. For me, separating the items that will take me longer than a few seconds to process basically makes it an effective, manageable To Do list. I’ve had no problems with my Starred message list becoming another horrifying Inbox monster. Yet, anyway.
“I don’t use Gmail”
Then you’re on your own.
“What about labels, and sorting and so on?”
The overhead associated with other email management systems was what made them unfit for me. This is a simple process that so far has proven to be easily sustainable, and given a choice between inferior/sustainable and superior/unsustainable, I’ll pick the former every time.