5 Steps to Inbox Zero

My previous post: Reply with Generosity got some positive feedback so wanted to share another simple life hack that enables this style.

I’ve been at inbox zero for a couple years now and it has probably been the most life changing habit I’ve adopted.

By having my inbox empty, notifications — be they tweets, quip edits, emails or texts — actually function as intended.

They notify.

By receiving messages, I’m able to respond, dismiss or file for later.

I think this is like the Getting Things Done stuff but I never had the discipline for that system.

Anyway a few friends have asked how I do it so here goes. It isn’t complex (but that doesn’t mean easy).

Step 1: Adopt Mailbox or Outlook

One key to maintaining inbox zero is you need a tool that makes it easy to maintain or it won’t stay empty.

These two apps make it super easy to remind yourself to do stuff later or simply archive.

I prefer to archive everything in Gmail for later searchability. Unfortunately, search absolutely sucks on Mailbox but it is decent on Outlook. The UX of the inbox is better on Mailbox though. (I actually have the Gmail app also for deep search tasks because it is the best…but I digress).

Step 2: The purge

This is the second hardest step. If you are like I was you might have thousands of unread emails in your inbox.

This step means going through every. Single. One.

Yeah. I know.

But it isn’t that bad. It will likely take 3 hours max. Most of these can simply be archived / deleted or “remind me someday” (an undertouted Mailbox feature).

I also recommend clearing all other notifications including texts, tweets and other stuff. That way you are at inbox zero to start.

Step 3: Determine a plan for “filing”

This will be tailored to the individual.

The idea is that as emails come in we often don’t know what to do. I recommend and prefer to almost always just respond then, but sometimes that doesn’t make sense either because you are busy, want more time to think, or need to do something else first.

My system of “filing” is time based: meaning I typically “remind myself” later that day or evening to respond using the Mailbox feature.

As you can see there are other option like tomorrow or next week for lower priority items or a specific date (which I often use to remind people if I think they might drop the ball because they are bad emailers).

The other option is more advanced and frankly when I’ve tried it I can’t keep up with it. It involves creating lists of topics and categories (like the old folders in Outlook). I stick to the time reminders because I find these lists just pile up.

Step 4: Unsubscribe from everything.

This the easiest step. When you get crap just click the option at the bottom to unsubscribe.

This reduces the noise.

Step 5: Execute. And be decisive.

This is the hardest step. It requires actually being focused, engaged and decisive when people communicate with you.

One way of thinking about this is if you are standing at a party and folks come up to say hi. You could ignore them but you more likely will listen, respond. Maybe engage. Maybe move on.

But being your charming self, you don’t just ignore them.

This is what being responsive to notifications is like but way easier.

When you get a message, just decide: do I engage now (strongly preferred) or do I file for later?

Also just reply to tweets and quip edits and texts as you get them. With no email overwhelm this is way easier.

That’s it.

If you follow these steps, your life will improve. Or at least mine has :-)