After one of the busiest and most stressful weeks of my life, I posted a status update on Facebook minutes before I turned out the light and shut down my office for the weekend.
Inbox-zero is really not that uncommon for me— but I was proud to get there after a week where I could barely keep my head above water.
I had a few people ask how I did it, as if they are unable to achieve this little satisfaction— so I decided I'd lay out the system I use to keep my inbox in order.
The system I've developed isn't unique, nor is it particularly difficult to follow— it's more about creating the habit and sticking to it.
Personally, this was born out of necessity. As demands on my attention grow, my stress level grows along side exponentially. Seeing a pile of yet unattended emails is something I've learned I just cannot handle.
So this system, my inbox-zero system, is there to help put order to the chaos that is an inbox with a mixture of client requests, marketing materials, notes-to-self, and whatever else finds its way in.
If you'd like to join me in email nirvana, then perhaps this brief article with a few of my inbox rules will help.
As a note, I use Gsuite for all of my email— but most email systems work similarly, so if you don't you can probably still draw some inspiration for your own system.
Inbox Rule #1: Don't Work From Your Inbox
I view the role of the inbox as a holding pen for pre-processed incoming requests. This is the real-life equivalent of the mail carrier dropping today's haul at the front desk of your busy office.
It's unorganized, it's unruly, and it's no place to work from.
In the real world, a front-desk clerk or receptionist would sort through the mail quickly— making a pile for each department or person, and tossing circulars and flyers in the nearby bin.
Your digital inbox can be treated the same.
Any item in my inbox is simply a request on my time that I have yet to decide what to do with.
Inbox Rule #2: Sort Quickly & Often
I know some people only like to visit their mailbox a couple distinct times during the day, but this has never worked for me... For a couple of reasons.
- I often have to reference emails to get work done— so pretending I don't see the inbox filling up in the process is hard to do.
- The longer its left unattended the more easily it gets out of hand.
- Some emails are important— and I don't want to wait until a specific time of the day to read them.
- My phone alerts me of incoming messages anyway.
Pretending that's not all there is simply not possible— at least not for me.
Instead, I visit my inbox frequently throughout the day— specifically any time I need to open up my mail. But the objective when I open my inbox is not to necessarily respond to emails or fulfil requests— but rather to sort it all out and put it where it belongs before it gets out of hand.
Inbox Rule #3: Follow The Sorting System
As a frequently (and as quickly as possible) visit my inbox, incoming messages get quickly sorted.
Step 1 is to scan the inbox for obvious trash. Anything that I can see from the subject line alone that doesn't require my reply or future tasks gets quickly sent to the trash.
Some examples of this might be promotions, transactional emails that I don't need for record keeping, or automated emails like "Your video has been viewed 5 times!".
I can quickly check the box next to each of these emails and send them to the trash in bulk— and I've generally found this is somewhere between 30-50% of the emails in my inbox.
It doesn't necessarily mean all of these things are junk or spam, but often you can get enough information from the subject line alone that you don't need the full email for record.
Step 2 is to look for easy wins. If there is an email that requires very little of my time (typically 5 minutes or less) to handle— then I just do it now.
If it would take me longer to put the email where it belongs, let the recipient know I'm on it, come back later to take care of it, and reply again to let them know it's done— then it's better to just do it now.
As an example, if a customer needs a price changed on their website, I have two choices:
- Reply to them letting them know I got their email and that this request will be taken care of. File it away. Come back to it later. Reorient myself with the request. Fulfil the request. Reply to the customer letting them know it's complete.
- Just go fulfil the request and let the customer know it's complete.
Option 2 is always my preferred method. Sure, this can require a little bit of multi-tasking— but it's not uncommon to get 5-10 of these requests per day... Option 1 takes me twice as long as option 2 does, so there is some real time saving opportunity here.
Step 3 is to add a "star" label to any email that I know I'm going to have to attend to later and that the request has not been yet fulfilled.
If it's a message from another human, I'll generally send a quick reply letting them know that I got their message and give them an expected timeframe for fulfillment.
The final step to clearing your inbox is to file everything away. I create a folder (Gmail/Gsuite insist on calling them "labels", but I use them much more like folders) for each of my clients and/or projects. Some even have subfolders for things that need to be grouped together.
First I file away everything without a star— these are generally messages that don't require my reply or attention in the future, but that I might need to reference later. They are generally for good record keeping.
Lastly I file away everything with a star to it's appropriate folder.
It's at this point, assuming more hasn't come in, that you reach inbox-zero.
Rule #4: Work from Your Starred Emails Folder
Now that you've sorted the incoming mail and put everything where it belongs, the only emails that require your attention are marked with a star, and conveniently held in your "Starred" folder.
The Starred folder is where the bulk of my time inside my email is spent. These are the messages that have made it through all the screening and the only ones that survived and require my full attention.
Because Gmail allows you to see all your starred emails in one place (think of the star like a "tag" that can be easily added or removed)— you can quickly and easily see what emails require your attention while still having them filed away in their appropriate folders for your records.
When I'm done with that email's request, I can simply click the star button again to "un-star" them— and because they've already been filed away to their appropriate folder, they are already where they belong.
Is It Really Inbox-Zero?
I've shared this before and been challenged if this is really "inbox-zero" if all I'm doing is moving emails out of the "inbox" folder.
My answer is, unequivocally, yes.
The Inbox is a place of chaos where too many worlds collide— emails of all kinds with the only order being the timestamp at which they arrived.
The truth is, we are never going to have nothing left to do— there's always going to be something. Inbox zero isn't about not having anything to do— it's about having everything in the right place.
If you work from your inbox, you are being forced to work among a crowded and chaotic space filled with emails that run the gamut from unwanted spam to a real emergency— and it doesn't take long before a system like that gets out of hand.
You know that feeling when you clean your desk off and everything's in perfect order? That's inbox-zero. It doesn't mean that you threw everything cluttered on your desk away, it's just that you took the time to put it where it belongs.
If you are careful enough to do the same with your inbox, you can maintain a tidy space where inbox-zero happens several times throughout the day.
Find What Works For You
Of course, this system wont work for everyone... In fact, no system works on its own— you have to form a habit that makes it work.
For me, I learned these rules organically. Finding ways to try and clear my mind and keep my digital space in some sort of order. I developed habits by truly enjoying the results that some of these rules bring— eventually resulting in the system I shared with you today.
Perhaps your way will be different— but so long as it creates order in an otherwise date-driven inbox— then you will reap the rewards.
A Quick Recap
Now that you understand the details behind the system, here's a quick recap to use as quick-reference:
- Don't work from your inbox
- Sort your mail quickly and often
- Delete unneeded emails
- Take care of simple requests now
- Add the "Star" label emails that need your attention
- File everything in your inbox to it's appropriate folder (the point of inbox-zero)
- Work from your starred email folders
- Un-star when complete
A Couple Inbox Tools I Use
Over time I've worked a few additional tools into my inbox that help take the organization to the next level.
Kiwi for Gmail/Gsuite
Kiwi for Gmail (or Gsuite, depending on your needs) allows you to put all your Google inboxes into one desktop app (available for both Windows and Mac). I've tried some other tools like Station or Shift— but there were too bulky for my needs.
What I like about Kiwi is that it allows me to access all my email accounts from one app, and it's easy to toggle back and forth. Since I operate a few different entities, I've found this really handy for improving my production.
Kiwi will also allow you to access Google Docs, Sheets, etc. which saves you from having to sign in/out of different accounts in the browser to get to the right set of documents.
Follow Up Then
Follow Up Then is one of my favorite things ever— but I'll warn you, until you start using it, it's hard to understand its full power. James Rose did a great review and video, so I'll let you take it from him if you want to learn more.
It's perfect for sending yourself reminders in the future and how I remind myself to do countless future and recurring tasks. There's no charge for just about everything you could want, and once you get the system down is extremely easy to follow.