Zen and the Art of Inbox Zero
You may not know it, but your life is filled with inboxes. That pile of bills on your living room table waiting to be paid? An inbox. Facebook, Twitter, Instapaper? Inboxes. Voicemail box? You got it… It’s an inbox.
All those inboxes are hidden queues of tasks waiting to be processed. As long as they have content in them, they keep on nagging you — demotivating you. They are reminders of the work you need to do, but potentially never want to. In fact, you could be putting your time to better use.
You are at work.
There are emails to the North.
> answer email
Three more appear.
> answer emails
Twelve more appear.
> run You cannot run.
To tame the beast that is the mass of your unread emails, you need to make a plan and stick to it. Here are the tools and methods I've been using to keep my email inbox under control.
The first step is always the hardest, but in this case it's really important:
Declare email bankruptcy
Open your email client. If you don't have an Archive folder, create one. Select all of the emails in your inbox, mark them as read and move them to this Archive folder. If you use Gmail you can do this through the following commands: Select all > Mark as > Read > Archive.
Done. You are now free…
…Until the next message arrives.
Worried you may have moved something important and missed a valuable email? You don’t need to. If something was important and was left unanswered, it is bound to rise up again. If something is really important and you forgot it in a pile of unanswered emails, you have bigger problems than digital clutter. It is probably time to stop what you’re doing and start prioritizing things.
The next step is to find a method that will cut down on the amount of messages you receive in the first place. If you look carefully, you’ll realize that a huge chunk of messages you get on a daily basis are not actionable. They are what we nerds call Bacn. Here's the Wikipedia’s definition of Bacn:
Bacn (pronounced like bacon), is email that has been subscribed to and is therefore not unsolicited (like email spam is), but is often not read by the recipient for a long period of time, if at all. Bacn has been described as "email you want but not right now."
Bacn differs from spam in that the recipient has actually signed up to receive it. It is also not necessarily sent in bulk. Some examples of common Bacn messages are news alerts, messages from merchants from whom you have made purchases and messages from social networking sites.
My advice to deal with Bacn is simple: Create a new email account and use it from now on for ephemeral items. Ideally you should create a new short domain (like yourlastname.me or firstlastname.co) and set it up on somewhere like Google for Domains. There you can set things in a way such that one real email address can catch emails sent to any email address on this domain.
With that in place, you can start using email addresses like email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, etc. Make sure you change your online accounts to use these emails and, when creating a new account, use email@example.com.
Don't obsess over your Bacn account. Check it once a week or, if you feel the urge, once a day. To make things easier, you can set up (or ask some geek friend to do it) a cool script that will automate things for you. It's called Baconmail.
Baconmail will keep an eye on your Bacn account and organize it into labels so that all Twitter messages will automatically be archived in the Twitter label. It will also send you a daily digest that contains a summary of the messages you received the previous day, so you'll have virtually zero reason to login to your Bacn account. Ever.
The service is open source, which means it is free. You don't need to pay anything to use it. You just need a server and someone capable of setting it up. Easy!
Now that you have fewer emails pouring into your account, it's time to thin it out a bit more. One potential solution for this is Sanebox. This application keeps watching your inbox and moves all messages to a SaneLater folder, keeping your inbox free of new messages.
Once a day (or more, if you want), a message arrives in your inbox that contains a summary of all new messages that have been archived in the SaneLater folder. From there, you can archive, delete or move the message to the inbox.
You can also train the script to bypass important recipients and subjects, so that messages from people you really care about will always be delivered directly to your inbox. The service costs around two dollars a month.
Let what is important come through
With the setup we have outlined so far, I can guarantee that you are going to get far fewer emails in your inbox, every day. But you deserve more. What about never having to worry about missing an important email ever again? What about not feeling the urge to keep checking your mail client every five minutes? There's a solution for that too. It’s called AwayFind.
On AwayFind, you can mark people and subjects as VIP so that whenever a message from them or with a specific subject arrives you get an alert via text, phone call, Twitter — you name it. This service had a profound impact in my email addiction. After setting it up and adding my VIPs, I felt liberated and was able to turn off all my clients. If something is important, it will come through. Pure bliss.
Last step: review time
As I outlined in my article about information overload, one of the best ways to deal with a list of things you need to address is make them inevitable. The good news is that you can apply the same mechanics to your inbox.
By using tools like Mailbox.app for the iPhone or the Email Game web application, you can quickly go through each message and pick an action to deal with it, be it archive, schedule for later, reply or trash it for good.
Do it daily, first thing in the morning. After that, close your email and don't reopen it until the next day… unless you get a VIP alert. Those are the ones that really count.