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30 Days of Inbox Zero: How I Did it (waxman.me)
54 points by waxman on Mar 12, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

I'm doing the exact opposite as Michael; but I can't say which of us has the better system. I probably get a lot fewer emails.

I've given up on inbox zero -- I now use inbox infinity. Everything stays my inbox unless auto-categorized (mailing lists, specific clients, etc). When I look through my emails, I flag any email I'm not dealing with right now. Otherwise I reply, leave it, or delete it. I archive anything old than 6 months every 6 months.

I suppose, in effect, my list of flagged emails is my inbox-zero but I feel more connected to whole stream of email with the box full. I occasionally need scroll to previous days and glance around.

I also have a Pebble so I'm effectively checking email instantly all the time. I find with the pebble that I dismiss things much more frequently now (emails, texts, and calls). Perhaps because the act of looking at the Pebble is so passive compared to checking my phone or computer.

Same here. The idea of Inbox Zero is like a physical mailbox that requires you to empty it. The idea of Inbox infinity is like a Twitter/Facebook stream, where things go by and you pick out the ones to take action on.

An email in your inbox is two things: an imperative to act (reply, call, do something based on the email), and a piece of searchable supporting information for that action - or anything else, really.

So what you describe is pretty close already to inbox zero. The last step is to get even more aggressive about archiving things non-to-dos and trusting that archive search box. A truly empty inbox is more important than it may seem - new items are seen by themselves, standalone, instead of as part of existing glut of shit to take care of. And it's good to have the discipline to either commit to an imperative task or just say "no" - either explicitly or via non-response.

My inbox is not an imperative to act -- only the unread bold items are such an imperative. Those are to be replied, forwarded, flagged, deleted, or ignored. If it's read then I've done one of those actions. No need to archive off the inbox to get that discipline. All the tools are there.

I found that it's a disadvantage to not have the stream of activity that Inbox infinity provides. All incoming email is sorted by date so I can always see my activity.

In many roles, that would be irresponsible, as you would drop your colleagues emails and leave them hanging. I agree it would be freeing, but I don't think its fair to the rest of the team.

I don't understand what you mean? Why would any emails get dropped? All unread emails when read are replied-to, forwarded, flagged, deleted, or ignored.

Ah, I see. I misunderstood - in your system you handle all emails, you just dont remove them from the inbox.

I would never give access to my email account to a fly-by-night SAAS service. Nevermind the privacy concerns of mining my data, I just wouldnt trust their security practices unless they prove otherwise. An email nowadays is considered your identity. Any breaches to it can have a number of social, professional and financial implications.

Case in point, unroll.me mentioned in this article has a number of issues [1] [2] and response of Josh Rosenwald, founder of unroll.me at [3] dismisses that risk for perceived convenience.

[1] https://plus.google.com/u/0/+SimonPhipps/posts/fJQZbGuoY9G

[2] http://startup-stuttgart.de/unroll-me-complete-mail-data-tre...

[3] http://startup-stuttgart.de/unroll-me-complete-mail-data-tre...

P.S. previous discussion of unroll.me security hole: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7035724

I feel like I'm the only person in the world who doesn't have this problem, even though I get a bajillion emails a day. Why is it so hard to hit Inbox Zero?

I would imagine it depends heavily on your email load. I get plenty of email, but the majority of it is automated, so with my gmail fitlers, I have only 2-3 per day that I actually need to read.

OP, on the other hand, is the founder of Grouper, and presumably gets dozens or hundreds of emails from real people requesting his time, input, or other resources. As such, there's significantly more effort involved in determining that a given email isn't worth responding to.

I don't know what your situation is, but I would imagine OP has significantly more real-person mail than the average HN poster.

Minor nitpick but the page shows he's the founder of Grouper, not Groupon.

Whoops, thanks. Updated. I was thinking of Grouper when I typed this, anyway.

I get around 50 emails a day, and hover around inbox 40

Removing all filters and categorization has helped me reach this number, and forced a few habits and mindset changes:

1: I aggressively unsubscribe from mailing lists. If you have to make a filter to automatically archive a mailing list because you never read it but want to keep it just unsubscribe. If you have to, bookmark the site but if you aren't reading it now when will you be?

2: I ask a lot more of the people who email me. If I have partial answers I send those immediately, and if I know I won't get around to it for a while I make it clear that it will take time. I err on the side of archiving unfinished conversations as if it is important most people are OK with sending a follow-up email.

I have a very similar system, and for the first time in well over a decade, my total inbox (spanning 3 gmail accounts) has hovered somewhere around 10-15 messages for the past 2 months.

Two questions decide the fate of every email "Is this from a person I know?" and "Will I ever need to search for this?" If both are no, then it's destroyed with reckless abandon. All others are archived immediately. No "read" messages in my inbox, ever. It's either "unread" or it's archived.

I almost always Send + Archive, unless what I sent was "I'll take a look in a couple minutes". And then I Send + Archive as soon as I send the next reply. If it sits in my inbox for over a couple days, I add it to Asana (if I haven't already) and archive the message.

I unsubscribe to almost everything automated (besides my own daily system summaries, which I delete once I've reviewed them).

One thing I would _love_ to have is the ability to set expiration filters on my emails. For instance, I like getting travel deals in my inbox, but I never need them for more than a day (since they generally only last that long anyways). Same for system summaries: Auto-Delete or Auto-Archive after 3 days would be perfect.

Also, since I don't use a local client for email, the "Checker Plus for Gmail" Chrome extension is pretty great, since it shows everything as a unified inbox, and shows me a single "unread" number so I know when I need to dive in and do some triage.

Why do you want to know if an email is from a person you know?

I like to have a history of emails from people I know.

If you could automatically have a history of emails from people you know, do you still need to know if a new email is from a person you know for you to manually process it? And if so, why?

I'm not so sure if I would want to destroy an email with reckless abandon if it's from someone I don't know but who know me. Maybe they want to get in touch about some of my work.

By the way, I liked the idea of expiration filters on emails.

Can, uh, can someone please explain me how exactly you end up with a hundred mails in inbox? Every day?

This is a genuine question, please bear with me. I follow several high-traffic mailing lists, and I use e-mail as my primary means of Internet communication, because I started using it back when ICQ wasn't all the rage yet. But they're all tidied up and filtered. Checking my e-mail in the morning takes, what, five minutes, plus 10-15 minutes or so of reading messages from the mailing lists that I actively read because they're really important for my work. Every couple of days or so I spend maybe another thirty minutes skimming the other mailing lists, but an hour of e-mail is pretty much something that I've never done. Do various service-related e-mails pile up, like Facebook's neverending stream of notifications? If so, why is this news-worthy?

I regularly hear about it, and regularly hear that Gmail is particularly adept at dealing with this. I don't use Gmail; I have an old account there, opened when it was still invitation-based because every techie had to have one of course, but I'm not really sure about what else it can do other than, you know, filter messages. Are there any additional capabilities here?

And, Interwebs, please don't take this the wrong way -- I'm not trying to put up the smug l33t h4x0r attitude who doesn't understand how kids nowadays misuse computers, I'm really trying to understand how people use e-mail nowadays.

I think it's a very "role specific" problem.

You sound like you're in a really lucky situation where neither your specific job, not your organisation has a big email culture.

But, for a lot of roles or organisations they use email for distributed tasking. Even in a reasonably small technical team I'd say this is common - so you start receiving email that requires response due to it either being a task or it checking on status on a task.

It becomes even more difficult in situations where your response is required quickly as business is being blocked while you don't respond. A lot of (for want of a better word) middle management roles fall in this category.

There is a bit of the 'hero' problem about email management and far too much "FYI"'ing but it is a real problem. Ultimately, the cost to "send" an email is a lot less than on the X people who you just asked for a reply. So in some senses the impression of zero friction communication is very costly.

Thanks! Yeah, it does make some sense.

i get probably 1000 messages a day. inbox zero was never a goal of mine, and never will be. i'm not really sure what the point of it would be. seems futile.

i have 3 things that help me keep my mail organized (my startup runs its own postfix+dovecot mail server)

* mail client on dedicated vertical 24" monitor

* procmail (mailing lists, alerts, tickets)

* spamd (spam)

everything else hits my inbox, and if i don't delete a message, it stays there, where it stacks indefinitely.

search bar + at-a-glance view of every important message i've received in the last N days is useful, i'm not really sure where this obsession for having an empty inbox comes from. that would actually hinder my productivity.

lots of ssd + ram = right now there's 29,453 messages (and attachments) in my inbox and it feels great. all of them are marked read.

yeah, unread 0 seems way better than having an empty inbox. what's the overall benefit with having 0 inbox over unread 0?

I wonder if Inbox Zero is a worthwhile goal.

My inbox is effectively one of my to-do lists. Since I don't cross off everything on my to-do list each day, my inbox usually has a few dozen messages. I have found that when I move an email to a "check later" folder, I never do so.

pg has described email as a to-do list of tasks assigned by other people.

The social dimension is my reason for pursuing inbox zero. Especially as a founder, it's important a) not to be a bottle neck and b) to respect others by responding promptly.

I'm similar to you in the to-do list inbox, and I also never check "check later" folders. Instead, I use Mailbox app (Boomerang also works for this) to "bounce" emails back into my inbox when I don't need them today. This allows me to hit zero each day and conveniently reminds me of important things at the time that they need to be addressed.

You need to get into the habit of checking your TODO. I find it quite easy to get into that habit with Andreas Klinger's system, but I haven't been able to with any other system I tried. I think it's because I see them on the right.

I do the exact same thing. If the email is something I need to address, it stays in the inbox. If I don't need it, it's archived.

My work email usually hovers around 5-10 emails in the inbox.

My problem with solutions like this is that they never seem to fit any other people's methods of working. Saying things like "Only check e-mail twice per day" is not going to work for 95% of the people that are reading this (rough guess).

If I only checked email twice per day, I'd just end the day with 500 emails that need responding to all in one bunch. On top of that, many of them would no longer be timely, disrupting other people's days and slowing others down.

Am I alone in thinking like this?

If you get five hundred e-mails per day and many of them need replies on a timescale shorter than a few hours, presumably replying to e-mail is (a large part of how you do) your job. Which is fine; that means if you spend a few hours a day replying to e-mail, you're spending a few hours a day doing your job, which is as it should be. Articles like this one are addressed to people for whom e-mail is a distraction from their jobs.

> that means if you spend a few hours a day replying to e-mail, you're spending a few hours a day doing your job

Sadly not. In the corporate world, if an activity doesn't have a timesheet task code associated, it doesn't exist.

Clearing e-mails doesn't have a task code, so effeectively it's a few hours unbillable on top of your working hours each day.

> Sadly not. In the corporate world, if an activity doesn't have a timesheet task code associated, it doesn't exist.

Then don't do it. If that stops other people getting their jobs done, that's not your problem. Trying to fix dysfunctional organization problems with "I will work harder" doesn't get you appreciated, it gets you a ticket to the glue factory. (Reference from Animal Farm by George Orwell.)

Super happy to be in the middle ground here. Post startup, pre-IPO. We track our time, but putting an hour or three as "phone/email" into toggl.com is normal.

edit: for those thinking that unsubscribe is a good idea. it's not. changing your email to a junkmail email before unsubscribing from services you don't need anymore is a better approach

for mutt users this is really easy to accomplish even with many mail accounts. create a macro file eg. ~/.mutt/macros:

    # have to be sourced on folder hooks
    macro index,pager ,a "<save-message>=$my_account_name/archive<return>"
    macro index,pager ,p "<save-message>=$my_account_name/pending<return>"
    macro index,pager gi "<change-folder>=$my_account_name/inbox<enter>" "Go to inbox"
    macro index,pager ga "<change-folder>=$my_account_name/archive<enter>" "Go to archive"
    macro index,pager gp "<change-folder>=$my_account_name/pending<enter>" "Go to pending"
    macro index,pager gs "<change-folder>=$my_account_name/sent<enter>" "Go to Sent Mail"
    macro index,pager gd "<change-folder>=$my_account_name/drafts<enter>" "Go to drafts"
    # vim: syntax=muttrc
now in your account hook do the following:

    folder-hook gmail \
       ' \
       set my_account_name=gmail ;\
       source ~/.mutt/macros ;\

afterwards type `T*,aG` and all your current email will be archived. from then on you can use the quick bindings for accessing all your mail with those shortcuts

If it's a newsletter they are sending you legitimately (ie, you signed up for it) then you should not be marking it as spam; just use the unsubscribe link.

Marking emails as spam can have a negative effect on the company and, if they didn't do anything wrong, you shouldn't be hitting them with that.

Another recommendation I would make (either to get to zero or get yourself to stay there) is to pre-commit to your goal using Beeminder (http://www.beeminder.com), which will make you pay money if you don't hit a target each day. (Don't worry, it only counts "read" emails so you don't have to worry about emails coming in and causing you to go off track)

Is there a good "getting started with beeminder" guide? I tried Beeminder, and had no idea how to use it.

Last month, they published a New User's Guide: http://blog.beeminder.com/newbees/ .

Not a big deal. I'm surprised this is a thing, been doing it daily since 2004. I don't really get the alternative.

One great way I have found is to filter all emails with 'unsubscribe' into a separate folder for reading later using this:

`Matches: ("opt-out" OR unsubscribe OR "viewing the newsletter" OR "privacy policy" OR enews OR "edit your preferences" OR "email notifications" OR "update profile" OR smartunsubscribe OR secureunsubscribe OR yahoogroups OR "manage your account" OR "group-digests")`

It really helps cut down unproductive emails

Michael, what if I told you not only you wouldn't need to overly focus on hitting inbox zero but never have to use email again?

Intentdo was created for busy people like yourself and for the minimalists alike. It works outside the scope of email, it doesn't try to solve the 'problem' of email, it simply gives you a different paradigm by letting you ask to be sent intents rather than emails.


The format: Intents are quick and encourage clarity. Own your time, welcome intents when you want to. If you choose to answer, a yes-maybe-no does it. This is intent-like: Intention + 4 actions, 250max

Here's the answer to your main concerns:

1. "Have a method for writing emails (on both my phone and computer) without checking them"

The method is the very intent's format to draft a new intent.

"Without checking them" is the Waiting list where you see (if you happen to open it) whose intents are waiting to be welcomed by you thus unlocking its content. Good thing is, you decide when to.

2. "...triage frequent mail sources that I want records of, but never want in my inbox (e.g. certain reports, shipping confirmations for online shopping, etc.)"

Even though Intentdo is only a week old, we're already working to launch upcoming features that will give you what you could say it's a Pinterest for your Dropbox. Interfacing with email, Intentdo not only will inspect your inbox (with your permission) for the services you're subscribed for and want to get notifications of but will organize your files for you.

I'd love you and everyone here to try and start asking people to send you intents rather than emails. I'd love also to know how you feel about it. To me, it's all about the liberating feeling of coming back to owning my own time, but most importantly, the great calming ripple effect it creates by encouraging clarity through the format which brings people to think thoroughly and edit what they're saying. Three words: Clarity. Integrity. Simplicity.

www.intentdo.com , invite code "replace-emails".

Send me intents at ^frank.

Note: just found out about grouper here. It sounds great. Invite accepted!

As of yesterday I've been at Inbox Zero for 47 days. Before that my longest streak was 8 days. For me Inbox Zero is all about not having loose ends at the end of the day.

How I did it: 1) liberal unsubscribe. 2) ruthless delete. 3) scheduled time on my calendar to reply.

I remember on day 26 one message I didn't want to deal with stuck in my inbox. At the thought of breaking the streak I re-read the message and scheduled 30 minutes the following morning to reply.

I'm making a to-do list for Gmail as a browser extension. It'll be free and I should have screenshots up in the next week if time allows. If you're interested, get on the list here:


There was a discussion of Andreas Klinger's system that also included a Google Apps script for catching emails you forgot to mark as needing a response. I can't find it though - anyone have the link?

I was just looking for a system like this. Thanks Waxman!

just feel surprised there exist people who think using email filter is something worth showing off!

Is anyone who gets a lot of emails use default Gmail filters, how do you feel about it?

If you don't have any concerns regarding privacy or security, use Mailbox app http://www.mailboxapp.com/ I do #inboxzero very easily and it's so piece of cake, I don't need to write blog post about to tell how I did it.

I'm at Inbox 3580.

Inbox zero is meaningless. It doesn't matter how many emails you have in your inbox; what really matters is to get to the important stuff first! So prioritisation is the key!

None of you know what inbox zero really is.

cmd + a, delete?

I do sometimes declare e-mail bankruptcy and just archive/move everything to a folder for later reference. To the OPs point, if something is important, people will generally follow-up.

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