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Manage your e-mails with the "Inbox Zero" method

☕ 6 min read

 The main idea

My goal here is to present what is that productivity method about, how do we set up and what does work for me.

The base picture is the following: emails that accumulate make us feel guilty.

At best, we struggle not to accumulate too much unread messages, we force to constantly remember which are the urgent ones, those which need a reply, those that are just spam… At worst, we just let the 2342th unread email arrive, we forgot to handle some that might be important, people can’t really “join us” with an email.

Inbox zero is a concept that consists in cleaning up our mailbox to avoid it turns into a uncontrolled TODO-list.

It helps keeping a serene spirit in front of our empty inbox, because we know that nothing has been forgotten. This is surely the most efficient technique I’ve adopted to get things DONE until today.

The Holy Grail
You don't have anymore email. Have a nice day!

How to set up, concretely?

This is the most difficult part. I honestly think it.

Just let’s deal with it like it’s a big numerical spring clean up!

An email client to rule them all

According to me, the very first thing to do is to be able to manage all of our mailboxes at a single place. Everything becomes simpler when both receiving and sending emails can be done from a single place.

We just need to configure and use one of the numerous email clients that exist. You can even configure GMail to do that. The problem is choice.

That could be handful to create labels − or equivalents − to distinguish incoming emails regarding their original mailbox.

Archive is easy as pie

This is the core of “Inbox Zero” philosophy: just archive!

Start your cleaning up by archiving all emails from your mailbox.

A decent email client will give you the possibility to archive at the push of a button. Furthermore, it should be easy to search for an archived message thanks to the search bar. This is why we should first just archive all the thing and move on.

Some people would create folders to classify emails regarding their nature. I did stop doing this since it’s a waste of time that has never proved useful for me.

The philosophy we need to have is the following: the inbox is here to handle incoming emails that are still unread, not handled, waiting for a reply or some task to plan. If an email is read / replied / handled / don’t need any reply anymore, archive it. If that’s an important one and we want to quickly retrieve it later, we can eventually add a label if that ease our life.

The concept is simple, yet efficient. It doesn’t rely on anything but the capacity of archiving, an efficient search engine and rigour in everyday life.

In everyday life

The day-to-day objective is clear: 0 email in the inbox.

To dedicate 2 or 3 slots in our day to deal with emails is far more efficient than keeping our mailbox open and treat incoming messages all day long. It usually can wait and it’s counterproductive to let every new incoming email disturb us in what we’re doing.

Then, this is just action. We should decide. Quick.

We should not procrastinate emails and decisions. There are a couple of scenarios for that.

 The email that requires us to do something

Let’s assume we organize thing we have to do with an external system, whatever it is: a paper TODO-list, post-its, a task manager software… I personally use the Kanban technique with Trello, but that’s another story.

Then, this email requires us to do something:

  • which is not absolutely necessary : forget it. We can eventually drop it to the “things to do on spare time” list.
  • that someone else can do : delegate when possible − that’s sound dumb to say but still don’t forget you can delegate.
  • that can be done in less than 2 minutes : Just. Do. It. Now.
  • that should be done at a very specific moment : let’s plan a reminder (Calendar, planned SMS…)
  • that should be done later : let’s add a TODO to our system. Here it is, planned and won’t be forgotten! For Chrome users, there is even a GMail to Trello extension.

Once decision is made, archive it!

 The email we should reply to

If that reply takes less than 2 minutes, let’s do it now and archive this email!

If it will take more time, we’ll better leave the email into the inbox and plan a TODO to reply to this specific email. Thus, we can prioritize this task with all the other things we have to do. Still we don’t stress for not having replied to this email yet: it’s all planned!

And when reply has been sent, guess what… we archive this email!

 The email that doesn’t need a reply from us

We read, we take note, we archive. Voila!

 The undesirable email

This is usually the newsletter, the useless ad, that email which is just polluting our inbox − and our attention.

But before we do archive / delete this one, we’ll take an extra minute to open it, search for the unsubscribe link that is probably at the bottom of the email and click on it.

The few seconds we systematically invest in doing this will considerably reduce the number of undesirable emails we’ll receive later. This is a good investment!

Personal feedbacks

It has now been a little over a year since I start using this technique to manage my mailbox.

The biggest valuable change is to be able to decide quickly. Don’t let emails stack into an inbox that is just becoming a crowded TODO-list in itself. Don’t lose time trying to organize and classify emails instead of just treating them.

I’m particularly receptive to this continuous approach. Doing thing little by little just fits perfectly with the Kanban methodology. My mailbox is now reliable without being a source of stress. It’s simpler and more efficient.

There are a bunch of posts around there if you want to go deeper. Here are few of them:

Published 17 Feb 2016Discuss this article on Twitter

Did you know?

I’m the author of understandlegacycode.com.

Every week, I share practical tips to help people work with Legacy Code.

I write about VS Code, web development and life in general.