My “Inbox Zero” System

July 2012

in Self-mastery

Inbox Zero is an email inbox philosophy that comes from Merlin Mann, the creator of 43folders.

As the site says, Inbox Zero is about getting your brain out of your email inbox. For me, personally, this means getting my inbox down to zero emails, and keeping it that way—whenever it’s not empty I process it as quickly as possible. Inbox Zero also, critically, avoids using email as a tool for information and task storage.

Below are my key pointers for how my Inbox Zero system works. If I were to summarize it in one sentence, it would be:

Keep it simple, reply asap, archive with vigour, and reduce clutter!

What I Do

  • Regularly process my inbox throughout the week. Once a day is fine for me, though it depends on how much email you get. Admittedly, I look at my email much more than once a day, but when I do it’s usually to see what email I just got, and to process it immediately.
  • If replying to an email will take under 60 seconds, do it RIGHT NOW. No excuses! If it’s urgent, I plan RIGHT NOW when I will respond to it. If it’s not urgent, then I approach it again during one of my “email purge” sessions.
  • Archive with vigour. Keeping emails around because you’re worried about losing information? This is 2012: don’t delete anything, just archive it! Get it out of your Inbox! If it’s important project information, put it with the project. If it fits a specific category, then label it before archiving.
  • Keep emails that require replies in my inbox. If the email needs a reply, I let it sit in my inbox until I reply. If it’s been there for a few days, I assess whether I actually need to reply. If yes, DO IT, of not… archive!
  • Use filters. If you use Gmail, then Gmail filters are your friend! Whenever I start getting regular emails that I want to keep, but don’t need to look at right when they come in, I just filter them to a specific folder. For example, I have a Life Dev and a Biz Dev folder that receive emails from relevant email subscription lists. Whenever I want to read some life hacking updates or some business and writing advice, I make the effort to go look in those folders. If I find I’m never looking in them, or don’t find them useful, I’ll start unsubscribing from them, which brings me to the next point.
  • Unsubscribe from clutter. Do you get weekly emails from some clothing store who forced you to give them your email address? How about some email newsletter you signed up for to get a free ebook? If it’s not useful, dump it: Unsubscribe, filter it to the trash bin, or mark it as spam.

What I Avoid

  • Using my Inbox as a to-do list. Hopefully you have some other sort of to-do list organizer or system. If you don’t, then you probably have even more low-hanging fruit to tackle, my friend. I use a system of mind maps,, and plain ol’ paper to keep track of my to-do lists. But I do not let my inbox become a to-do list!
  • Using stars everywhere. I use stars sparingly. Save it for important stuff. Don’t go starring emails willy-nilly, or else the star becomes meaningless. I use stars to represent things that need my attention and require more than a few minutes, and the email contains enough information that it’s not worth writing out onto my regular to-do and project lists. If it sits there for a while, I’m either procrastinating doing something important—in which case the solution is to do it—or it’s not actually all that important—in which case… archive!
  • Obsessively labelling & categorizing everything. I used to use Gmail labels a lot, but that has seriously dwindled over the past year. I found that I wasn’t using them after-the-fact, ever. If I need to find something that doesn’t fall into one of my main filtered categories (like Biz Dev) then I’ll end up searching for it like I would any other email. So, why bother?

How about you guys? Anyone else tried living an “inbox zero” life? How do you do it?