Inbox Zero!

In my last post, I listed some ridiculous examples of new year resolutions. I don’t do resolutions, but it just happened that I discovered a new productivity tool (fancy for “to-do list app”) last week, and every time that happens, I get all motivated and end up at that elusive (and always moving) finish line called Inbox Zero.

I will talk more about various productivity tools, including this new one I’ve discovered, in a later post. (Let me add that to my actions right now.) For now, though, I want to share my guide to reaching Inbox Zero.

I have three email accounts: work, school, and personal. At this moment? Inbox Zero in ALL THREE. Yes, I’m boasting. No, I didn’t start from a scary, seemingly insurmountable number in any of my inboxes. (Three month old job, one semester of school with most school emails going to my personal account, and less than 100 emails in my personal email. I had been at inbox zero there four or five or six months ago.) But I’m here to tell you that YOU CAN DO IT.

Yes, it will take time. I’ve read David Allen‘s Getting Things Done, and while I’m not a blind adherent, he says some things that make a lot of sense. One of those things is to set aside a good chunk of time to set yourself up. Who can do that in their real life? None of us, not really at least. So set aside smallish chunks of time–15 or 20 minutes–for a couple of days, and we’ll get your inbox whipped into shape.

A few principles that I try to hold to. Your mileage may vary, as they say. (I certainly don’t hold myself up as a paragon of organization.)

  1. Archive is your friend. I use Outlook at work and Gmail for personal and school, and both of those have fairly robust search capabilities. Get the old stuff out of your inbox. You’ll still have access to it. (If you use Outlook, I don’t mean the Outlook archive procedure. I mean “create a folder that isn’t your inbox where you will dump everything after you’ve read it.”)
  2. Keep it simple. Two jobs ago, I had email folders for every different project I did at work. Do you know how hard it is to search when you don’t know what folder an email is in? Not worth it. If you need to keep emails sorted in a folder-like manner, use tags (Outlook categories). Individual emails can have more than one tag, but they are all in one place: your archive.
  3. Filter it out so you don’t even see it. Those emails that are from your favorite charities asking for money? Travel deals? Coupons for photo books? You don’t ever need them in your inbox. Filter them straight to your archive, and then when you’re looking to fly to Iceland or take a cruise or make a photo book, look for up to date emails in your archive.

We’ll get to what to do with those emails that you think you need to keep in your inbox (things that you need to follow up on or are waiting for someone else to deal with) later. Right now, we’re going to take those 2500 (or 8000, there’s no shame here) emails in your inbox and make it less overwhelming.

Take a deep breath, set a timer for 15 minutes, and then we’ll get started.

Step One, gmail directions (See below for outlook directions.)

  1. Sort your inbox by sender. This is going to help you move dozens of emails to your archive at once instead of going through all 12,328 emails one by one.
  2. Take the first chunk of emails all from the same sender. Say, abacusdeals.com. (No, I did not look to make sure this does not actually exist.)
    1. Do you want to keep getting emails from this sender?
    2. If you do, great. But we’re going to filter them so that they don’t interrupt you and clutter your inbox. Click on one of the emails from this sender. Click on “More” and then “Filter messages like these.” Click on “Create filter with this search.” Check the box for “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” and the box for “Also apply filter to __ matching conversations.” Then click on “Create filter.”
    3. If you don’t want to keep getting emails from this sender, there should be a way to unsubscribe. Open one of the emails, scroll down to the bottom, and look for a link that says “unsubscribe” or “manage my subscriptions” or something along those lines, and follow the directions.
    4. Of course, it’s possible that you have 436 emails in your inbox from your mom. You don’t want to filter those straight to your archive (I assume). Keep the most recent one or two–maybe up to a week or two weeks, even–of those emails in your inbox, and dump the rest in your archive. Even if your mom asked you something three months ago that you haven’t answered, you’re not going to at this point. If she really cares, she’ll ask again.
    5. Your boss and coworkers are a different story. I assume you don’t use gmail for work. If you do, that’s fine. Just look below at the Outlook directions where I talk about emails from your boss.
  3. Keep dealing with these large chunks of emails in the same manner until your timer goes off. Then pat yourself on the back for making great progress. I promise that in these 15 minutes, you’ve made a noticeable difference. Now, come back tomorrow while you’re drinking your coffee, and do another 15 minutes. When you’re down to a small number of emails from each individual sender, come back and we’ll talk step two.

Step One, Outlook directions

  1. Sort your inbox by sender. This is going to help you move dozens of emails to your archive at once instead of going through all 12,328 emails one by one.
  2. Take the first chunk of emails all from the same sender. Say, abacusdeals.com. (No, I did not look to make sure this does not actually exist.)
    1. Do you want to keep getting emails from this sender?
    2. If you do, great. We’re going to create a rule to filter them. Click on one of the emails from this sender.  Then click on “Rule” in the ribbon. You’ll get a drop down list of a few options; one of them should be “Always Move Messages from: [sender]”–click on that option. A box will open with a list of folders. Click on your archive folder and then click “OK.”
    3. If you don’t want to keep getting emails from this sender, there should be a way to unsubscribe. Open one of the emails, scroll down to the bottom, and look for a link that says “unsubscribe” or “manage my subscriptions” or something along those lines, and follow the directions.
    4. Of course, it’s possible that you have 436 emails in your inbox from your mom. You don’t want to filter those straight to your archive (I assume). Keep the most recent one or two–maybe up to a week or two weeks, even–of those emails in your inbox, and dump the rest in your archive. Even if your mom asked you something three months ago that you haven’t answered, you’re not going to at this point. If she really cares, she’ll ask again.
    5. Your boss and coworkers. Different story here. These you want to sort by the subject line. Keep the most recent email for each subject line; dump the rest in your archive. You don’t need the older ones, since the text is included (*cough*should be included*cough*) in the email chain.
  3. Keep dealing with these large chunks of emails in the same manner until your timer goes off. Then pat yourself on the back for making great progress. I promise that in these 15 minutes, you’ve made a noticeable difference. Now, come back tomorrow while you’re drinking your coffee, and do another 15 minutes. When you’re down to a small number of emails from each individual sender, come back and we’ll talk step two.
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One Comment on “Inbox Zero!”

  1. […] an earlier post, I gave you my tips for whittling down an overwhelming inbox to something more manageable. […]


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