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Inbox Zero for Life (xph.us)
132 points by bradly on Jan 22, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

A matter of opinion perhaps but I don't consider having emails that require action achieving "inbox zero" (even if they're not in your inbox).

I follow almost everything in this post except for the starring. Instead, I do the following:

* If an email requires action and it is fast, I do it now, then archive.

* If an email requires action but will take longer than a minute, I keep in my inbox (but read). I clear these emails out once per day.

* If an email requires action but I can't because I'm blocked by some outside factor (waiting on something for example), I use followup.cc and redirect it back to me in a certain amount of time, then archive. When it comes back to me, I use followup.cc again if I'm still blocked.

Thank you for the link to followup.cc. I've been looking for a tool/service like this for a while.

Ditto here (would just upvote but that's private now).

This reminds me of boomerang for gmail [1] followup.cc has the advantage that it isn't gmail specific.

[1] http://www.boomeranggmail.com/

Boomerang is a life-saver but its doubly wonderful when you practice inbox zero

Completely agree. Using starred emails as a to do list is not effective because you do not have an easy way to prioritise these actions.

Thanks for the heads up on followup.cc what a brilliant idea!

Two lab settings make all the difference when it comes to achieving inbox zero. The first is auto-advance.


Being forced into the next email in your inbox upon archiving the last, instead of back to the threadlist does wonders for keeping you in processing mode instead of constantly presenting you with the inbox.

The other is "Send and Archive":


This removes the second step of having to mentally re-process and archive a thread after you've already sent a reply to it.

While you're in labs you should probably enable undo send too if you haven't already.

Definitely. Those are the two most important labs settings for me, it just makes the entire process so much more efficient that I'm unsure why they aren't default functionality.

For the first one I just use the commands [ and ] which give you the flexibility of going either way through your list.

That's definitely true for archiving. The auto-advance lab feature also introduces the behavior when muting or deleting. It's also nice if you've already built up a lot of muscle memory on 'y' or 'e' for archiving or are a home-row typist with weak pinkie fingers.

Am I the only Gmail user who never archives aything? My Inbox has every email I've ever received in it.

Why? because it means I don't feel the stress of having to zero something out. Sure, the more unread stuff I see, the more I know I'm backlogged...but I find it handy to see recent emails toward the top... and that's what leaving everything in the inbox does for me.

I admit when things get crazy at work, Priority Inbox works well for my system.

You're not alone I have seen several friend's inboxes and this appears to be the common usage pattern. These same friends also tend to be very slow to respond and they often just wait until we talk inperson. In class I've also seen other students with inboxes full of unread email. My sister does not unsubscribe from spam newsletters which she instead ignores.

Overall I doubt any good comes from these loose email practices. I may have acquired business style email use earlier in life from the freelancing so I may not be considering their situation.

When an email comes in I never leave it over a day to respond. Just two days ago I got into a real-time email conversation with someone trying to compile my open source project. I invited him unto gtalk and solved the compilation issue in <5 minutes. Had I taken longer to respond he would have gotten bored long before he could become a potential contributor.

People not responding in time doesn't have to do with how they read their mail but only with how they prioritize their life. You consider mail important ,they probably not as much. I follow the same "full inbox" approach and answer quite fast to mails, in part because i do have email notifications everwhere. I do answer mails with a certain importance at once and keep others on unread or starred.

I know people that archive all mails and do respond slow in general and people that respond fast.

Have a look at http://research.microsoft.com/pubs/69394/p309-fisher.pdf - you are not alone, it is known behaviour (though a minority seems to do this).

I also never saw what archiving an email should achieve. Having it unread is archived enough.

I never archive on my personal Gmail account. Right now I have ~16K read emails, completely unstructured. But it doesn't matter too much because emails I get there rarely need responding to, and I normally get around 5-6 emails a day to that address so I can read them all easily.

My work account however is organised into folders, I normally just leave items as unread until I've replied or am finished with them, then they're archived into folders.

I'm the same, but I mark as read things I should probably archive, and delete things like notifications.

Can you really claim inbox zero if you've just moved the workload from the inbox to the starred folder? Seems like the same problem with a different name.

The problem with using your inbox as a todo list is that anybody in the world can write to it. (citation needed.) The point of putting todo messages in a separate place is to separate the activities of doing stuff (ie, the items on your list) and deciding what needs to be done (processing your inbox and building your list).

When you're looking at starred messages, you know that a) you've already read the message, and b) there's an important task you need to do. Your job is to remember what you wanted to do and get it done. When you're in your inbox, you know that your seeing new information and your job is to decide whether or not its important.

This distinction may sound trivial, but it makes a huge difference. Think of it this way: When you read a message and then mark it as "unread," you're throwing away all the work you've already done in reading and evaluating it. Next time you encounter the message you're starting from scratch. By starring it and taking it out of your inbox, you give yourself enough of a cue to quickly resume processing the message where you left off.

But you can star something without moving it out of your inbox. It then moves up into a separate list at the top; the delineation is very clear, and I don't have to bounce between different screens.

Things you don't want to see again should absolutely be archived. But if you're using the Gmail web interface, you don't have to slavishly adhere to a literal interpretation of "inbox zero".

It's not about the label "inbox zero". In fact, I rarely have an empty inbox. Usually there's a handful of unread messages and maybe a couple that are read, but I haven't decided whether they need action.

What is important is limiting the distraction caused by new mail. If you're working through your todo items and new messages are getting added to the list, they'll distract you even if you don't read them. Of course, you probably will read them, which is even more of a distraction.

By keeping todo items on a separate list, you can keep your attention on your work, rather than on new messages. Then you process the inbox only when you choose to direct your attention to it.

It's actually addressed a bit in the article, when the author talks about the cognitive load of mixed messages. I think the point is that not everything in the inbox warrants being a "Todo". When you're done you have a list of action items to be accomplished, which isn't quite what you started out with.

I used to use my actual inbox as my to do list. As the author mentions, we all are guilty of it on some level. The issue for me was that the original couple items I "marked as unread" that needed later action soon were being buried by new email and even with triage, 4 unread/actionable emails turned into 10, then 20 and so on to the point where I'd have to do deep email triage or declare inbox bankruptcy and start over. This was tedious and mentally exhausting.

The shortcuts in the post are a huge help. I always knew they were there but never thought about how they would work in a process as described in the OP. I'm going to try using the web UI with those now instead of Sparrow.

How exactly is starring emails going to keep them from piling up? I don't see the gain here.

My work (a ~9000-strong ASX50 company) puts/used to put each and every one of us Engineers through a day-long 'Working Smarter with Outlook' course. It'd run the gamut from Outlook's structure and how to get the most out of it (eg: telling you to piss off the various locational icons such as calendar, journal, etc. in the bottom-left and use the folder tree instead), tips to get the most out of appointments, using your calendar to fill your day up and keep focused on tasks, to inbox management.

For inbox management, they preached the '4 D's' of inbox - Do, Defer, Delegate, Delete. It works quite similarly to what this link is describing, though including delegation helps include the managers who need to dish out work to their team. I've always found this to be a pretty powerful tool, and it seems many of my managers use it too. We've found that it's helped them get a hold of the 'inbox noise' they often get bombarded with, given the overuse of CC.

It's a lot of work to set up, but I encourage everyone to try one of these approaches. Blocking out a chunk of your time and burning through emails without any time spent on each of them is a really liberating feeling and helps deliver this zen-like focus on your other tasks. I think it's the fact that you're structuring your entire work schedule by doing it which helps so much.

I have an alternative approach (that is not incompatible with this one) that works well when one is not expected to deal with a lot of email not addressed directly to me: I only process email that mentions me specifically in the headers. Mailing list traffic of anything outside my most proximate working group is thrown into a pile of mail I read -- or don't -- at my leisure. Doing this, there's often not much mail addressed specifically to oneself.

This strategy probably has variable utility depending on one's role in an organization: triagers and connectors between groups may not be able to use this as successfully, for an individual contributors -- like me -- it seems to work.

This only works in organizations with reasonable email hygiene where:

* People don't expect you to respond to something where you are not in the To/CC list

* People don't use expanded email aliases as opposed to more typical mailing lists.

This strategy is not unlike how one deals with being subscribed to large mailing lists like, infamously, LKML (Linux Kernel Mailing List) people can just ignore stuff and read at their leisure.

I'm sure this will help some people - and I agree about not allowing an email program to interrupt you. But the "inbox zero" movement seems to appeal mostly to those who use impoverished MUAs like Gmail. I use Mutt and usually keep 2000-5000 emails in my inbox. Works for me.

I've never archived anything in gmail. I really don't understand why Gmail has "archive" at all, but I guess it's a culture thing that I never picked up... people expect to move emails out of the inbox... I find that a total waste of time that adds anxiety.

My gmail-based inbox has 15,000 messages and I don't have a problem..

I had 12,000 emails in my inbox (Gmail) a bit ago. Just archived them all.

Honestly it does feel a little bit liberating :-)

I don't know, i like the usual workflow in gmail. The is "important and unread" (my priority todo), "starred" (my todo or remember some stuff list) and "everything else". Why would i need to do so much processing as this guy suggests?!

I don't care for the large "everything else" list, it's just the latest stuff i got for a quick look, that's ok. The first two lists are far more important and always contain only a few items that are worked through.

So in the end i guess everyone has his own best workflow but i also think that the gmail team did a pretty good job with the current design.

Hint: the only thing i really hated was the "comfortable" design theme that became the new default.. Luckily it's just a click away to get to the "compact" version, much much much better!

Interesting article, considering today's Mailbox app [1] launch. The killer feature of the app seems to be the ability to process emails in your inbox, telling the app to send them back to the inbox at certain time intervals (later today, tomorrow, next week, etc.).[2]

I've been casually learning Ruby over the past several months, and was inspired by Mailbox to hack together a very rough snooze feature independent of the app.[3] The Ruby app hooks into special Gmail labels and causes emails in those labels to 'resurface' to the Inbox if certain conditions (mostly timing, e.g. the 'Tomorrow' label resurfaces emails at 10AM the next day) are met. It will take some time to develop the snooze workflow, but I like the system so far. An independent snooze function also has the benefit of letting me continue to use Sparrow to manage my email on iOS.

[1] http://mailboxapp.com

[2] http://mashable.com/2013/01/22/mailbox-app-review/

[3] http://github.com/mattparmett/snoozer

another trick i'd add on to the article - use the "Multiple Inboxes" view that Gmail offers - add a pane for starred items (is:starred search pane) - and set it to show only 1 item at a time - and position it above your classic inbox. What this does is - shows you 1 starred email (i.e. todo item ) at a time - at the top of your inbox. That way you always have 1 task ready for you to sort out - and no other tasks to distract you. (you can always dig into the starred items to see if theres something else you'd rather do / more important - but this helps focus tremendously! )

There are websites that turn email into a game; it shocks me how good a motivator this can be (I guess part of me IS still a child).

My recent favorite is http://emailga.me (NB: gmail only)

The combination of timer count-down, smileys and 'rounds' is rather clever. And more importantly: effective.

This doesn't help with the paralysis induced by longer emails that deserve an equally thoughtful (read: time-consuming) reply.

For those I pick up the phone. It's retro, but saves time in many cases.

Hierarchies and sub-views suck when you want to view them all the time, every day. Use the "Multiple Inboxes" lab feature to show all your starred messages on the same home screen as your inbox. No more "learning to love" gs. http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/new-in-labs-multiple-i...

Just a small warning about starring things: unstarring items by pressing 'y' from the Starred list (including bulk unstarring) is one of the operations in GMail that doesn't have an 'Undo'. So a key sequence like 'gs*ay' will remove lovingly-placed stars from a lot of email with no way (that I can find) or reversing the operation. So don't do that.

I don't get much mail, but I usually respond to them at once and then leave them in my inbox forever. If I need to take action at a later time I usually still respond, and then write it on my paper todo list. I've got some filters for mailing lists and other spammy things (bug reports etc.).

Shameless (relevant) plug: I wrote a little iOS app for getting to Inbox Zero in GMail. It spits one email after another at you, forcing you to triage using the subject line and a few lines from the message. http://app.net/emptyinbox

I feel sorry for people that need to devote so much mental energy to managing their email.

They probably feel sorry for you too ;-)

This strikes me as a fundamentally poor user interface for incoming information.

We should fix it. E-mail can be the input, but there's got to be a better way to organize it so that it's not an input overload. I've got some ideas...

2. Do not use priority inbox... 3. Do not use push notifications for incoming mail on your phone.

I do both of these, but I have my phone set to only notify on priority inbox and I only use priority inbox for family.

Nice tips. Ever since I deactivated Push, life has been better for me. :)

A recommendation that I would add, make it so that your starred folder DOES push to your phone. That way you have access to that email even if you don't have an internet connection.

i just read them and stuff


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