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How I got to “Inbox Zero”

Recently, I decided that I should at least try to keep my email inbox under control. I set a goal of looking at every single email that’s in my inbox at least once a week. For the past month or so, I’ve done pretty well. Here’s what I did.

How I Got Started

When I decided to take this on, I knew I couldn’t start with a full inbox. I had tens of thousands of messages in my inbox. Many of the messages were bulk mail from vendors or other mailing lists, a whole lot were automated notifications for systems I monitor at work, and some of them were probably personal emails written to me that I had never seen or replied to. But I had to start somewhere, so I decided to pick a cut off date and simply ditch all the email that was older than a month. I figured if a message was a month old, and I hadn’t yet seen or replied to it, that it probably wasn’t relevant any longer. If it was relevant, I figured it would come back.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw the emails away, so I created a new folder called “To Be Reviewed,” and I moved all the older email to that folder. This way, I could convince myself that the emails were there if I ever decided to go back and review them. Even though I knew that was never going to happen, it made me feel better about the whole process.

Once I had only a month’s worth of emails in my inbox, the task felt manageable. I set aside a few hours early one morning, and I went at it.

How I Keep Up to Date

There are a few things I do to keep my inbox under control.

Use Flags

Throughout my week, I often open emails that need followup but I can’t get to them right when I first see them. Instead of leaving those messages in my inbox, I “flag” them for followup and then file them in my archived mail folder. The mail doesn’t stay in my inbox, but it’s really easy to show a list of flagged email that need followup when I have a chance to reply to them.

Sort By Sender

During my weekly inbox cleanup, I first tried to sort the messages by date (because it seems logical, right?). After a few minutes, I realized that sorting by the sender of the message helps me cut through the messages faster. If I have multiple messages from a single source, they all show up next to each other, and it’s really easy for me to make a single decision about all of the messages at once.

Use the One-Click Archive Button

In the Mail application on OS X, there’s an “Archive” button. I had to add it to my tool bar (right-click > Customize Toolbar), but now it’s really easy to file a message. With a single click, the email leaves my inbox and goes to my Archived Mail folder. Voila!

Unsubscribe First

Before I read through the messages, I search my inbox for the word “Unsubscribe”. This shows me most of the bulk messages in my inbox. I spend a few minutes unsubscribing from as many of them as I can before I manually sort through the rest of the legitimate mail in my inbox.

Use Smart Folders

I created a few “Smart Folders” in my Mac OS X Mail program. This makes it easier to see, with a single click: flagged mail, mail in my inbox, unread mail, mail that contains “Unsubscribe”, mail from a particular address, etc.

Failure Will Happen

Like I said earlier, I try to keep my inbox at zero by going through the messages at least once a week. I’m not perfect, and I’m sure I’ll fall behind again soon enough. I won’t be afraid to cut bait and move all the old email into my Archive folder without reviewing it so that I have a fighting chance of actually getting through the inbox.

Do you have any tips for keeping your inbox at zero?

  • TyHoad

    I maintain a zero inbox everyday, though I only receive about 50-100 emails a day.
    HOWEVER, I respond immediately (within the day) to everything.
    A response can count as:
    Delete
    Unsubscribe
    Forward
    Reply
    or FILE in another folder
    (All “TO DO” Items also get immediately flagged in their folder)
    Once they go in the trash, they are trashed. If I must keep it or think I need it, I don’t trash it. I file it.
    I don’t file “maybe later” Mail at home in the trash, so why do it at work?

    • Travis Austin

      Ty – I don’t get what you mean when you say “I don’t file “maybe later” Mail at home in the trash, so why do it at work”.

      Can you elaborate?

  • Great input! thanks for the tips!

    • Travis Austin

      Thanks, Ruth!

  • Excellent information and your decisions make a lot of sense. I’m going to try some. Thanks for sharing.

  • Pam Hasbrouck

    My e-mail got hacked a year ago. I reported it to Hotmail and was blocked from my inbox…the loss was great! SO, I now maintain three e-mail addresses — one that I only give out to friends (you and Laura have that one) for which I pay a fee (included in our internet service); the second is a free e-mail address that I use for “desirable” junk such as confirmations for online purchases, weekly air travel specials, Redbox specials, the obligatory address requested by your blog site, etc. that I actually want to receive; the third e-mail address with a different, free e-mail service is the one I use for “junk” such as Pandora notices, store coupons (requested by the store upon checkout), etc.

    I look at my personal e-mails several times a day (often from my phone). I answer those promptly and have organizing folders for the ones I want to keep (i.e., photos of our darling grandson that I’ve downloaded to my computer, but I want to keep the cute messages from Luanne about John’s activities in my “family” folder).

    I look at my mid-level e-mails a couple times each week, and anything that is truly important, like travel confirmations, I forward to my personal e-mail address to keep in the appropriate folder (I have one for “travel”). Anything that’s not important enough to forward to myself gets deleted.

    I look at my junk e-mail address as often as once a week or as little as once a month. I check the “delete all” box and quickly scan the “sender” field to see if there’s anything I want to read. If so, I uncheck that box. Within a couple of minutes, I’ve deleted all but half a dozen messages, and I never leave the inbox without deleting or forwarding the remaining messages. I find myself “unsubscribing” to at least one every time I look at that inbox.

    Sorry to have made such a lengthy comment, but I find this system is really working for me. I know that there will never be ANY junk in my personal inbox, just communication with friends and family, so I’m highly motivated to check it often. Each of the e-mail addresses is cross-referenced with one other e-mail address, so should one be compromised, I’ll have an access code sent to the other e-mail address. AND my personal/important e-mail address actually has a support person that I can talk with should I need support!!