Five simple rules for keeping an empty inbox
Surprising then, that only a few years ago I was literally living inside Microsoft Outlook. Rigid folders, the nightmarish rules "wizard", and that annoying inbox chime that dings regardless of which folder your new
I completely believe that Gmail saved my life. Okay, that's pushing it. Gmail didn't save my life. What Gmail (and a little bit of GTD-inspired respect for my own time) did was save my attention span. Some careful filtering and a bit of common sense returned a half hour or more of uninterrupted concentration per day.
That's 2.5 hours a week, over 10 hours a month and more than one whole day per year.
So, how did I do it?
I follow five simple rules. These rules are gospel, and if you want your life back you're going to have to treat them like your life depended on them. Email organization is easy, the commitment to continue is the hard part.
Five simple rules for keeping the inbox clean:
- If you don't need to read it now, it shouldn't be in your inbox.
- If you've already responded to it, it shouldn't be in your inbox.
- If it comes from a known source (some person, retailer or mailing list that sends you mail more often than once every few months) it should be labeled automatically.
- No one needs to look at their own inbox more than once an hour (and for many, once every 2-3 hours).
- To borrow from the cult of GTD, re-factor constantly and mercilessly.
DLS readers are smart cookies and, being one of them, you've probably noticed a pattern among the rules. Your inbox should be empty.
"What?!", you exclaim, "That's impossible!"
True. The real world probably won't ever allow you to have a completely empty inbox. If it does, you're probably not busy enough. However, the empty inbox should be the ultimate goal. Think of it as the monster at the end of the final level of the incredibly popular video game that is Gmail. It my take time and patience to beat it, but the feeling of accomplishment when your inbox is clean (the the monster is slain) is unmistakable.
Let's go through the rules one by one and expand on them.
1. If you don't need to read it now, it shouldn't be in your inbox.
Listservs, newsletters, sales fliers, we get them all. They're a useful part of our work and social lives but, left to fester in your inbox, they are a horrid waste of productivity. Added to which they make easy procrastination bait.
The answer is simple, it's all in the labels. Create a label for each listserv you subscribe to, apply the labels with a filter, and auto-archive each message. I thought we all did this (then I saw my wife's Gmail inbox); Turns out, more of us than you'd think could use this simple bit of advice.
Tip: Instead of filtering your lists by subject, (i..e filtering for messages that contain "[downloadsquad]" in the subject) filter them by the To: (i.e. email@example.com) field. This serves an additional purpose, if someone replies to you off-list, it will end up in your inbox, rather than being lost in the mess of a thread you're no longer following.
2. If you've already responded to it, it shouldn't be in your inbox.
When you respond to something, archive it. It will reappear when/if there is a reply. This can really help clear your head-space in your inbox. By which I mean; You'll find that the more diligent you are, and the "cleaner" your inbox becomes, the quicker you'll be able to decide what to do with each individual email you receive. Having less in your inbox to weed through pays you mental dividends, you'll notice this almost immediately.
This rule really comes down to a very simple and almost all encompassing directive : If it's been responded to or didn't need a response, it should be tagged and archived. Which brings us around to...
3. If it comes from a known source it should be labeled automatically.
Family is fantastic, and I love mine very much; I'd just prefer to deal with them outside of office hours. This is made doubly important for me since I work freelance, and use one email address for absolutely everything.
I created a label named family, and a filter for each of my relatives. For an extra level of mid-day ease, you can set your filter for each family member to archive automatically. The messages will still appear as unread, only they'll be found under the label you applied. When you're ready to check in with your family's favorite email memes and well wishes, they'll still be there.
You can do the same thing with all sorts of predictable mail. Amazon fliers, domain renewal notices, community newsletters; they all fit this rule well.
(Tip: For predictable mail you want to see immediately, create the same filter but don't set the "Archive it" flag. This will ensure that you still see it in your inbox, but also allow you to easily archive it without losing the message. )
No one needs to look at their inbox more than once an hour (and most of us once every 2-3 hours).
This is the hardest for me. I'm obsessive about checking my email (and, about everything else). If I let myself I can waste a half hour of my day just periodically looking at Gmail. The only way to get past this is, to make yourself trust the system. If you follow the rules really diligently, you'll find that it becomes easier to let your email "go" for a few hours at a time. Even when you do return to your inbox, your rules and filters will have done most of the mindless busywork for you, leaving you with emails that actually need your attention.
To borrow from the cult of GTD, re-factor constantly and mercilessly.
Any organization system is only as good as your persistence. For the rules I've laid out above to work for you continually, you must constantly be on the lookout for emails that get past your filters and into your inbox. Just like in Centipede, if they get past your front line defenses, you've already lost. Make sure you keep up the diligent work of creating new filters whenever something meets one of the above rules.
Easier email and, more of your own clock cycles to use any way you see fit. Who can beat that?