Get To Inbox Zero And Be Free From The Email Overlord

I was buried. There were a hefty 12,268 emails in my Gmail inbox. The scrollbars were stretched to their limits, and the unread count never fell below 30. Something had to change.

Nice and clean. It's how it was meant to be.

Awhile back, Julie talked about how to effectively use Gmail as a project management tool. A piece of great advice for a great tool, but what if your inbox is completely beyond repair? After years of reliance on Google’s wide open pastures of email storage and search-to-find, it was time for me to come to grips with my overwhelmed inbox. It was time to go inbox zero.

The Problem

The first step for making any needed change is to recognize the problem. I have always been one to email myself reminders and various to-dos. “Schedule this” or “clean out the gutters” were not uncommon messages in my inbox. Mixed in with business emails were reminders and errands; it was overwhelmingly unrelated and I wasn’t dealing with any of it. I had developed more than a few bad habits.

  • Inbox clutter. I was turning things that weren’t email into email and cluttering up my inbox. Notes, ideas, and various to-dos that were much better destined for something like Evernote, or Google Docs.
  • Search is not an excuse. Gmail has great search abilities. It just works, almost to a fault. My reliance on it was heavy, but it was also slowing me down. Every great search brought up multiple hits, requiring me to sift through them to find what I needed. Every important email should have its place and the unnecessary emails should be removed from consideration entirely.
  • Everything has a purpose. Plain and simple, I was using the inbox like a storage unit. Things came in, but that is where they stayed. Good management requires that you make a decision on each email. Every email should be told what to do, and made to obey.
  • Too much babbling. I was allowing too much noise to be allowed in as email. Email newsletters (irony), notes to self, and social media notifications were ruling my life. I needed balance, and the concept of less is more definitely applied.

It was important for me to realize that I wasn’t using my inbox optimally. The inbox is just that – a box for things that have just come in. It is where things go before they are sorted to their ultimate destination. An inbox is for sorting, not storing. I have always been someone who uses filters and appreciates the nifty tools, but found them less effective since I left so much in the inbox to rot.

The New Rules

If I was going to make the move to inbox zero, I needed to set up better habits in order to keep this problem from happening all over again in the future. My Gmail needed some new rules, and here’s what I came up with:

    1. Deal with it. Everything in the Inbox must be dealt with. I will delete it, archive it, reply to it, or delegate it to another list or program like Basecamp. No matter what, something must happen.
    2. Label it. Everything needs a label. Everything. Labeling a few things here and there doesn’t work. All things get a label, and it must become a habit. In inbox arm wrestling, habits win. Make sure they are good habits.
    3. Labels are big buckets. One of the reasons that I had failed to use labels consistently was because my labels were too specific. Twenty very specific labels will quickly grow to 30, 40, and on. I committed to no more than 10 labels.
    4. Unsubscribe it. Email newsletters are fine, and there are many that I read regularly, but there are others that just don’t belong. I don’t read them, but I somehow tolerate the daily task of throwing them in the trash. Not any more. Unsubscribe.
    5. Zero it. At the end of the day, the Inbox needs to be zero. If something isn’t done it should be delegated to a to-do or task list of some kind. Sitting around in the inbox is not ok.
    6. Use stars, but temporarily. Looking back, I had starred emails that were five years old. It’s doubtful that any of them were still important after all that time. Stars help remind me to deal with something that needs attention. Once it’s done, remove the star.

The Atomic eBomb

If good inbox habits haven’t been in place, there will be a lot of backlogged emails to deal with. For me, the right solution was to select all, click ‘archive’, and call it a day. I needed to start from a clean slate if I was going to start at all. This wasn’t my first trip down inbox-zero lane, but it was my first time in Gmail. I don’t know what it is about Gmail, but there is just something about that never-full search-heavy inbox that encourages users to let things get messy.

Life is better at inbox zero.

The inbox is an inbox again, made for sorting and delegating and not for storing. T0-do-list apps like Flow or Teux Deux acquire email subject lines that need to become tasks, and Basecamp acquires attachements and notes that matter to ongoing projects. Everything else gets a final decision – deleted, archived, or unsubscribed.

So, the deed is done, and the inbox is clean. A big thanks to Julie for the motivation to do the right thing. My inbox is under control – is yours?

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  • http://unifiedinbox.com/ Christopher Weir

    Congrats on reaching Inbox Zero, it is something which I have every intention of doing and is in fact my aim for today. What about your social media accounts though? Do you still find yourself wasting time checking them each day or have you found a solution for dealing with them too?

  • http://www.replicon.com/time-bill Project Tracking Software

    The concept of Inbox Zero sounds good to me as I receive unwanted and spammy emails in bulk everyday.

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