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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?