Inbox Zero for Humans

In a world of information overload, the inbox is often another source of anxiety and frustration. One well known approach to get around this email stress is called Inbox Zero. The idea is that you have zero messages in your inbox.

I’ve developed a system to (pretty consistently) keep my inbox empty, keep me on track, and not forget things. This is a combination of tidbits that I’ve learned from Getting Things Done, Tim Ferriss, Lifehacker, FastCompany and various other places. I’m not going to give proper attribution right now, but I fully recognize that I’m benefiting from the help of others.

This system is far from perfect, but it helps me a lot. Hope it helps someone else too.

How To

I use a 3-part system:

  1. Inbox as a To Do list
  2. Snooze Messages
  3. Aggressive Filtering

Inbox as a To Do list

  • Treat your inbox as a To Do list. Anything in here will and should consume your attention.
  • Everything in the Inbox requires an action. These are things you can act on now/soon.
  • Try to act quickly on these, and Archive/Move the message once you’re done and no further action is required.
  • If you’re not sure or have to “think on it” then Snooze it for later (see below).

Snooze Messages 

  • Snooze emails that you need to A) follow up on or B) can’t address until later.
  • Don’t know the answer? Snooze it. Waiting on someone before you can move on? Snooze it. Can’t quite decide yet? Snooze it. Need to think on it? Snooze it.
  • The danger here is the Infinite Snooze cycle where the message keeps getting pushed further and further out. You have to monitor yourself to try and avoid that. If you’ve found that you’ve Snoozed multiple times, then this probably isn’t a priority and you can archive it away.

Aggressive Filtering

  • The best To Do is the one that never touches your inbox. 🙂
  • I like separating messages into priorities. Later contains messages that I want to read eventually but are not a high priority, e.g. SFDC reports. Notifications contains messages that I’ll get to someday, e.g. Jira updates.
  • You can still have other labels/folders, but these are helpful for taming the noise.
    • Inbox: Important and Urgent.
      These are the messages that should consume your attention right now. See above.
    • Later: Important but Non-Urgent.
      Things that you want to read, but aren’t urgent.
    • Notifications: Unimportant but Non-Urgent
      Messages that you’d like to read… eventually. For me, these include Jira and other tool notifications.
    • Everything else goes into your Archive, gets Muted or unsubscribed.

Gmail Config

For me, Gmail is the right email provider. I’ve used lots of other providers (Office 365, Yahoo, etc) and clients (Outlook, Mac Mail, etc), but nothing beats Gmail. Your mileage may vary, but there are some useful Gmail settings to help achieve Inbox Zero.

  • Unsubscribe & Report Spam – Stop these kinds of messages from coming back
  • Send & Archive – Turn on Gmail auto-advance to the next message. That’ll save you 2 whole clicks! 😉 You can turn this on in Gmail > Settings > General.
  • Multiple Inboxes – Experiment with Priority Inbox or other inboxes. I don’t use this but other people seem to like it. They help to sort out kinds of messages.
  • Label Behavior – Only show a label if it has unread messages in it. This helps to reduce the visual noise on the lefthand menu.
  • Mute Conversations – Don’t care about this thread? Then mute the conversation. You’ll still get the message, but it’ll skip your inbox and go straight to the Archive. It’ll remain unread so you can find it later. 
  • Canned Responses – Free-form templates for common responses that you send. These can be short or long and include anything you’d have in a normal message.
  • Smart Compose – Google’s machine learning will suggest a quick 1-line reply based on your previous emails.