Inbox Zero: A Method For Your Email Madness

Photo uploaded to Flickr by: CHRISSPdotCOM, some rights reserved

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed these days. Near-constant streams of incoming information and objects are rendering not just our email account(s), but our homes, cars and brains into inboxes. Luckily, Merlin Mann created Inbox Zero – a philosophy for dealing with informational buildup and redirecting your mental energy – which can help you cope with all the clutter. When you keep an inbox free of tasks to be done by completing them when you receive them, you free up your attention for the things that really matter to you. Finding comfort in zero, both inside and outside the email inbox, could be your ticket to a clearer mind and schedule. And who couldn’t use more time and energy to devote to the important things in life?

The roots of Inbox Zero lie in David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. GTD is a way of dealing with both input and output that helps organize and prioritize tasks and create proportional responses. It encourages thinking of an inbox as a collection of immediately actionable items – a medium for communicating and completing tasks, not a catalog. Basically, it says that an inbox should not be a to-do list. It should be a tool for processing what you need to do.

If you balance your checkbook, you’re already familiar with zero being a good thing. To take that a step further, you could create a zero budget. By transferring your incoming money among checking, savings and retirement accounts, allotting it to each of your essential expenses and eliminating the unnecessary ones, you could account for (i.e., process) all of your income. And by accounting for all of your money, you won’t have to think or worry about it again until you receive more.

When’s the last time your inbox looked like this?

Beyond email and money, Inbox Zero can be implemented just about anywhere. Designate your problem areas – places where things stack up – as inboxes to be kept clear of distraction. If you find yourself with piles of stuff constantly taking up residence in the same spots in your home, your car or your handbag, taking a few moments to filter out the items that need to be processed and then taking care of them will keep your mind free to deal with the things that require more brain power. If you tossed a flyer about a new yoga class into your bag on your way out of the gym, put a little thought into whether you’re going to sign up for the class when you unpack your bag. If you know you’re not going to sign up, recycle the flyer. If you want to take the class, do what’s required to sign up, note the date and time in your calendar, then recycle the flyer.

The best way to start with Inbox Zero is starting at zero. This may be time intensive! At home, it could mean dumping out your briefcase or clearing off your table. In your email inbox, it means moving all of your email out of your inbox, into a separate folder. In both cases, as you look at each item you’ve moved out of the inbox, you should determine what you need to do to process it and then actually process it. And then keep going until there’s nothing left to process.

Everyone will have their own method for clearing out their three-dimensional inboxes, but there are a few tools that anyone can use to manage their email. Take a few minutes to evaluate the emails you’re receiving. Do you need to be alerted every time the furniture store has a sale, or can you check out the store’s website when you actually need furniture? That’s probably an email you can safely unsubscribe from. If you’re finding yourself merely glancing at emails from a particular source, let it go.

Setting up filters for bacn (the emails that fall somewhere between spam and meaningful communication) can really help. Do you need to know that someone commented on your Facebook status or added a reply to a forum thread you’re watching the moment it happens? Probably not. Setting up a filter to funnel those messages into a folder separate from your inbox will keep them available, but not up front and demanding your attention. (See the sidebar for a few how-to resources.)

An “email sprint” is a great way to steer yourself toward the bigger tasks at hand, and it’s as simple as turning your email off for an hour. No notifications, no open client, no checking your phone. Use the attention you’d be paying to your email for the important stuff. After an hour, reopen your email and process what’s arrived. When you get back down to zero, close your email again for another hour.

Don’t let an invitation hang around in your inbox. Save the details in your calendar and then delete it. Photo uploaded to Flickr by: Sarah Parrott, some rights reserved

If you find that you send the same responses over and over to emails that require little thought to process, write some canned responses that you can save in a document on your hard drive. When you start your email sprint, keep that file close at hand.

Take advantage of your organizational tools. If you receive an invitation to an event, respond to the invite and note the details in your calendar, then delete the email. If a family member sends you a link to a site or article that doesn’t require your immediate attention, click through and bookmark it so you can come back to it when you’ve got some free time, then delete the email. If a friend sends you their new mailing address or phone number via email, record it in your electronic or paper address book, then delete the email. Sensing a theme here?

Being comfortable with an empty inbox, whatever shape that inbox takes, is a challenge. Multitasking isn’t just a buzzword in job listings anymore – it’s a way of life. Just the sight of an empty inbox may take some getting used to, and getting to zero may be time consuming. But the effort spent learning the process and making it second nature will more than pay itself back. With the obstacles to your attention removed, you can spend more attention on family, friends and the projects that are most important to you.

Additional resources

Watch a video of Merlin Mann explaining the concepts behind Inbox Zero to the team at Google.

Find instructions on setting up:

Gmail folders and filters
Outlook folders and rules
Yahoo folders and filters
Hotmail folders and rules
Mac Mail mailboxes and filters

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