Because I’ve managed to do this for a week solid now, I had to share. I don’t usually mange to stick to performance enhancement methodologies – something always worms its way through the cracks, and the next thing you know we’re back to the old state of things. Finally, though, I think I’ve found my way to keeping my inbox manageable, sometimes crazily so.
Of course, the first step is that all of my mail (personal, work, etc.) run out of gmail accounts, so I have a common set of tools to work with.
- Archive. This is your secret weapon, because this is how you move a message from your inbox to out of sight without losing it. Especially in gmail, archiving a message deletes it from your inbox, but keeps a copy in your All Mail, so you can always go back and see it.
- Stars. Too important to lose sight of? Star it. Flag it. Whatever you want to call, it make it shine. The nice thing here is that if your mail client respects gmail enough (and you’re not just using the web interface), those stars are golden. Even when you archive a message, it will stay in your Starred folder, keeping it close at hand.
- Trash. Don’t need it? Don’t care after you read it? Delete it. Your trash won’t autodelete unless you tell it to, and if you don’t it takes 30 days for it to empty.
- Filters. If you’re like me, you get tons, tons of mail. Most of it isn’t intended for a human to parse, and in fact there’s generally too much to deal with one by one. Filters in gmail are your friend here. With care, you can filter a message based on sender, recipient (like mailing lists), subject, content, or any combination of the above. For example, I have a message I get every fifteen minutes that I never read – goes straight to the trash. Why get the message at all? Because I have a related filter that flags that message and pushes it into my inbox if it contains the word “FAILED”. I can’t control the process that sends the message – it sends on success and failure without discrimination. But I can filter on whether it worked. Similarly, at work we use a ticketing system. Anything that isn’t addressed to me or doesn’t contain my name in the body goes to the trash – I get copies of all tickets, not just the ones I care about. The ones that meet either of these criteria get a star and labeled. Which takes us to…
- Labels. Use them. Experiment with them. You can nest them now, so you can have layers of labels intersecting. I used to think of labels as gmail’s cheap ass way of dealing with folders, but being difficult. But thanks to better filtering options, I now see them for what they are – genius. In an old mail system, putting a copy of a message in multiple places could get confusing. Did you delete them all or just one of them? Which one did you reply to? With labels, though, you can tag a message with multiple properties, but the message itself is intact. Opening it reveals its history of correspondences, no matter where you are in your mail queue.
- Get a good client. I’m using sparrow, because it does a great job of working with gmail and let’s me run all of my different gmail accounts (personal, business, other other business, etc.) out of one interface. But the web interface itself isn’t too shabby in a pinch, and it’s already there. I realize Sparrow was bought up by Google and isn’t making new versions – that’s ok, Google hasn’t really been changing things up either.
- Deal with it. This is the one where the work comes in. You’ve trashed the messages you could delete, you’ve archived the ones you don’t need to respond to. What about the rest of your mail? Deal with it. Reply or forward, but take action. If you’re procrastinating, respond with a question to drag it out, but respond.
Why do this? What’s so great about Inbox Zero? In itself, nothing. But at the end, it’s a relief not to be dreading looking at my inbox and staring at mail that I’ve let sit, through inaction or plain laziness, for over a month. Meanwhile, I’m biting nails on mail I’ve sent, waiting for replies. Seems kind of unfair, right? No more.
I’ve tried more involved methods – flagging messages different ways, etc., but as soon as they are out of sight they are out of mind. Just remember – the goal of each day is to end with Inbox Zero, but you will wake up each morning starting over again. Over time, you will find a rhythm to conquer it. You may even find yourself noticing mail that before you were just ignoring and deleting in binges – mail that either needs a filter put around it so you can keep missing it, or that should have been getting starred that you weren’t noticing.
NB. After writing the first draft of this article, I came across the 43 folders page where, I imagine, the Inbox Zero concept was born. They’re very smart like that. I bring it up because I didn’t knowingly crib or steal any concepts – I’ve seen references to Inbox Zero for years, but this implementation was my own interpretation and shouldn’t be confused as being pure or true to the original concept. Or maybe it should be, I don’t know.