A holistic guide to Inbox Zero in Gmail

Handling dozens of emails every day is not only a huge pain, it can also be a huge productivity killer for your everyday work. As a developer and product manager I always try to improve my productivity, to stay on top of my tasks and waste as little time as possible. Email is actually one of the things which easily brings down my production level, but unfortunately everyone of us has to deal with it in some way.

As a disclaimer, this guide works without external extensions and might not be the best fit for everyone, especially those people which main job is to answer emails.

The easiest way to getting things done for me is to apply The Eisenhower Method. The Eisenhower Method or Eisenhower Matrix is a very effective time management tool and is also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix. It helps you to prioritize tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important tasks which you should either delegate or not do at all. The same principle can be used to organize your Inbox.

The Eisenhower Matrix consists of 2 axes, urgent and important, which eventually leads us to 4 quadrants:

  • Q1 — Urgent and Important (Do Now): Emails you should answer right away
  • Q2 — Not Urgent but Important (Defer): Flag these mails to answer it later
  • Q3 — Urgent but Not Important (Delegate): Delegate or forward these mails
  • Q4 — Not Urgent and Not Important (Delete): Delete or Ignore
Eisenhower Matrix

Setup multiple email accounts

First of all, if you are using multiple email accounts I recommend to forward all emails to one primary Gmail inbox. You can still use multiple email addresses as sending address within one Gmail account and filter incoming messages based on the email address it was sent to.

Setting up email forwarding to another email address depends on your email provider, but if you are using Gmail already with multiple Google accounts, this is how you can forward your mails to another address:

  • Click Settings (cogs icon on top right) > Settings
  • Go to tab Forwarding and POP/IMAP
  • At section Forwarding add the email address you want your emails to be forwarded and follow the steps

Now at your primary Gmail account or inbox, you need to create another sending address:

  • Click Settings (cogs icon on top right) > Settings
  • Go to tab Accounts and Import
  • Section Send mail as > Add another email address
  • Follow the instructions
  • Beneath the list of email addresses, choose Reply from the same address the message was sent to

To easily recognize to which address an email was sent to, we will create a filter for each inbox:

  • Go to Settings (cogs icon) > Settings > Labels
  • At the Labels section click Create new label
  • Enter the name of the Label (You can nest labels, e.g. if you have multiple email accounts from a project/company to nest them all under one label)
Create a new label
  • Go to Filter and Blocked Addresses
  • Create a new filter and put in your email address in the To field:
Create a new filter
  • Create filter with this search
  • Check Apply the label and choose the label you created earlier
  • Check Also apply filter to x matching conversations
  • Create Filter

The newly created label will show up at the left sidebar, where you can also choose a custom color for this label. Furthermore all threads which match one of the inbox filters will also have this label applied:

Labels on the left and labels applied to threads

Now that we have one primary tool for all email accounts and all incoming mails, we can start configuring our Gmail Inbox and applying the Eisenhower Matrix to our email workflow.

Configure Gmail Inbox

By default Gmail tries to force you to use its tabs structure, which in my opinion might work well for a personal, low-traffic account, but for my email behavior it’s not a very good fit.

Default Gmail layout and tabs

So to get rid of these tabs we need to perform the following steps:

  • Click Settings (cogs icon) > Settings
  • Go to tab Inbox
  • In the Categories section, uncheck everything except Primary
  • In Importance Marker section, select No markers and Don’t use my past actions to predict which messages are important
  • In Filtered mail section, check Don’t override filters

As the Eisenhower Method suggests to assign tasks (in our case emails) into quadrants, we need to configure these quadrants. Since Gmail already have the features for most of the quadrants, this is done in a few steps:

Q1 Do Now: Nothing to do here as we reply to these mails immediately.

Q2 Defer: Here we need to setup a separate “inbox” to keep track of deferred emails:

  • First of all we need to Create a new label for deferred emails (see above how to do that). A a label name I chose attention (because labels are sorted alphabetically by default) and the color red.
  • Then again go to Settings (cogs icon) > Settings > Inbox
  • Now in the first section Inbox type, select Priority Inbox (you’ll see that 2 new sections will be added automatically)
  • By default you’ll see this configuration:
Default configuration for Priority Inbox
  • We will change the first section to Unread (Options > Unread)and leave the 3rd and 4th sections as they are
  • For the 2nd section, we configure it to show all mails with the attention label: Options > More options > attention
  • In the Inbox unread count section we choose Unread items in the first section

Now we should end up with this configuration:

Final configuration for Inbox

Q3 Defer: Nothing to do here as we simply forward these emails to the right person.

Q4 Delete: Also nothing to do here, only thing you have to decide is if you delete these mails or just ignore them (= marked as read)

Eventually this is how our Inbox will look like:

New Inbox layout

Applying the Eisenhower Method

Now that we have set up our Inbox, we can apply the Eisenhower Method to process emails. Applying this method doesn’t only mean that you are done by configuring the layout and options of your Gmail inbox, it also means that you need a strategy to process mails. Emails are still a huge distraction on a normal workday and are often a trap to become the ToDo list of someone else.

For that reason I recommend to turn off all notifications for email (desktop and mobile) to stay focused. I know that sounds very counter-intuitive because you are used to get notified about new emails, but very soon you’ll get used to it and hopefully see an increase in productivity. Depending on what importance emails have for your workflow or daily work, I suggest to reserve three time slots per day to process mails. In my case that’s three 15–30 minutes slots per day (depending on the amount of email, which can vary based on multiple reasons like product launches, events, holiday season, …): one in the morning, on around noon (after or during lunch break) and one in the evening (last thing before leaving the office or finishing the workday).

At each time slot, we first go through all unread emails. For each email we have 4 options as the Eisenhower Matrix suggests: Do Now, Defer, Delegate, Delete (or Ignore). When you apply this method, it always hard in the beginning to evaluate the importance or urgency of each task or email, but this will come with some practice. Many of us are used to answer emails immediately and our brain is tricked to think that every email is urgent and important. Usually you will find out that most of the emails are less important and less urgent than you think, so I suggest if you are not sure about which options or quadrant fits best for an email, always go for the lower quadrant.

If you open up an email which is Urgent and Important, answer it immediately. For mails which are important but don’t need an answer right away, just add the label attention and move on to the next one. Emails for Q3 we just forward to the right person, if you are working alone or don’t have someone who can take that email over, either decide to defer it or delete it. All the other emails can be deleted or ignored (= marked as read).

If you don’t have any unread emails or still have some time left in your dedicated time slot, you can move on answering the emails in the Defer box (= label attention applied).

Automate incoming emails

After setting up the layout and knowing you to process emails, we are still left with a huge (or in some cases maybe not that huge) amount of unread emails and plenty of new emails incoming every day. That’s why I will also show you how can automate some of the incoming mails.

Usually if you sign up with your email to use tools or services you got plenty of onboarding emails or newsletters which dilutes your inbox and makes it hard to stay on top of the more important and personal mails. The good thing about Gmail is that you can easily create email addresses for this purpose on the fly. This can be done by adding a + and a word in front of the @ sign, e.g. if your email address is david@example.com you can create addresses like david+signup@example.com or david+newsletter@example.com on the fly and Gmail will catch these emails in your inbox. These addresses can then be used for easier segmentation and easier filtering of your inbox.

I would recommend you to “create” at least 2 email addresses:

  • david+signup@example.com for signing up for new services and tools
  • david+newsletter@example.com for receiving newsletters

For tools or services you use heavily, you can also add separate emails for them, e.g. david+twitter@example.com or david+trello@example.com in case you want to group them. I usually prefer not to receive any mails from tools I sign up for, I even use a dedicated email address to not get my primary email account diluted with onboarding, marketing, notification or update emails at all, but this is just a personal preference.

Either way, you don’t want these emails to dilute your inbox, that’s why we will set up a filter for these mails to skip the inbox, but don’t mark them as read automatically because we haven’t read them yet. As an example we will create a newsletter label for the email address david+newsletter@example.com:

  • Settings (cogs icon) > Filters and Blocked Addresses > Create a new filter
  • Add the david+newsletter@example.com in To field and click Create filter with this search
  • Check Skip the Inbox, Apply the label newsletter and Also apply filter to matching conversations

This way these emails won’t show up in your inbox, but are grouped under the label newsletter and are still marked as unread.

On the left we have 11 unread emails in newsletter, but not in the inbox
Selecting the label newsletter, we see that mails still marked as unread

This is just one of the examples you can do with labels and filters, depending on your workflow or the way you handle emails, there’s no limit in creativity.

Power ups and customization for Gmail

Beside plenty of professional extensions for Gmail like Streak, ActiveInbox and others, Gmail comes with some handy built-in features that only need to be enabled.

To enable them, go to Settings (cogs icon) > Settings > Labs. These are some experimental features of Gmail, so these may change, break or disappear at any time. Nevertheless some of them are quite useful, but you need to decide for yourself if you want to use them and which of them fit best to your workflow. I have following Labs enabled:

  • Canned Responses
  • Mark as Read Button

You can also further customize your Gmail experience by choosing a different theme (Settings (cogs icon) > Themes, I prefer dark layouts) or change the height of threads in the Thread view (Settings (cogs icon) > Display density, I use Cozy).

That’s it

I hope this setup helps you to improve your email workflow and increase your productivity. Feel free to tweet this article or hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions or suggestions for this article: @pichsenmeister