Getting to Inbox Zero — A Long Arduous Journey

Dopamine High

Until I started working full-time, nearly three years ago, email was merely a means to exchange study material and a medium to correspond with friends (a dull, insipid alternative to physical letters, which I love. But more on that is a separate post). The idea of ‘managing email’ was alien to me.

Then my first job happened and soon enough started the never-ending influx of work mail. For a while it was manageable. But in my second role, as EA to the CEO, I managed not just my own email but also my boss’s. With every unread email, my anxiety grew. I became that person who hated email. I complained and whined about it to my friends. I felt unproductive, constantly dissatisfied with my day’s work. There were days when I’d clear my inbox, walk to the coffee machine and back, to find 25 new emails sitting there waiting for me to lose my mind. 25 emails in less than 5 minutes! There were days when I was convinced that all I had done was check and reply to my emails. Coming back from a holiday made me sad not just because my holiday was over but because it also meant a LOT of email in my inbox. Mornings filled me with a sense of dread I hadn’t felt before and pings on my phone meant high levels of cortisol in my body.

At this point, overwhelmed and defeated, I did what any respectable person of my generation would do. I googled. A lot. I started reading up on how other people managed. I sure cannot be alone, I thought. I found a lot of content. Some great, some well-meaning but useless (you cannot check your email only thrice a day if you work for a startup) and some mere click-bait. There’s a reason why so much is written about these things. There’s a reason why 112K people follow ‘Productivity’ on Medium. We all want to be more ‘on top of things’, more in control of our lives. But the thing with productivity is, it’s tough to find genuinely good content and even tougher to ignore anything on the subject. I’ve cut down on reading on this topic to a great extent as most of it is of the ‘popular’ variety, written with click-baity headlines (I’m looking at you Medium) and all the right keywords but not really adding anything to what I already know.

But I digress. Most people either get overwhelmed with email and hate it (like I did at one point) or they simply ignore emails (we all have that one person in office who doesn’t read emails right?)

The best way to tackle email is to stop fighting it. If you’re racing to get to fewer unread emails, you’re doing it wrong. Recognise what works for you and what doesn’t. What works for someone else might not work for you.

Before I tell you what worked for me, I’ll take you through my journey to getting to Inbox Zero, one failed effort after another. I use Gmail so all the following information is about/around it. But I’m sure most of the things I’ve listed can apply to other mail clients as well.

Failed attempt #1 — Folders

How do I organise stuff in real life? Folders, of course. It seemed like a no brainer. I was sure folders were the key to better email management. I have never been so wrong. I know a lot of people who ONLY use folders to organise their email and they do a great job of it. It works really well for them. But not for me, I tried and I tried. I realised, for me, out of sight was out of mind. If I had to take an action on an email, it would have to be in front of me and not hiding in some folder. I still use folders but more on that later.

Failed attempt #2 — Labels

Labels are great. But use them for too many things and your inbox will end up looking like a rainbow. Mine did.

Inbox Style: Unicorn

I figured I couldn’t organise everything using labels because it would defeat their purpose of being able to find stuff easily.

Failed attempt #3 — Unread First

This inbox style divides your inbox into two parts, unread emails and everything else. This worked well at the very start. I would mark anything I had to work on as unread. But this soon got out of hand. I ended up having too many unread messages and things became chaotic. I also lived with a constant fear of having marked something read by mistake or having forgotten to mark something unread. This style works a lot better for my personal email where unread emails are usually at a minimum.

Failed attempt #4 — Starred First

This is a fairly common inbox style and it does work for a lot of people. While this style did not pose the danger of marking something unread, the issue of too many mails at the top of my inbox still remained unaddressed.

Failed attempt #5 — Priority Inbox with Outlook View

I tried the Preview Pane feature (available under Settings > Labs) with vertical split in conjunction with Priority Inbox. I configured it to split my inbox into three sections — unread, starred and everything else; and helped me view it in the Outlook format. This was a complete disaster. It was very easy for an email to get marked read in the Outlook view. There was too little space on the left side so subject lines were cropped and in general my inbox looked clumsy.

Eureka, at last! — Multiple Inboxes

This inbox style worked like a charm. With multiple inboxes, which is a feature available in Gmail Labs, you can split up your inbox into upto 6 sections (your one true inbox + upto 5 configurable inboxes) and define what goes in them but unlike the default inbox types, you can stagger these sections on the sides or on top of your inbox. Today my inbox looks something like this

On the left is my inbox and on right are the ‘inboxes’ that I’ve setup using this Gmail feature.

In order to set this up, all you have to do is,

  • Figure out how you want to split your inbox. An effective way to do this is to look at your to-do list. My to-do list almost always looks like this
  • Looking at it, you can break down my tasks into ‘today’s personal tasks’, ‘follow ups’, ‘shared tasks’ and ‘miscellaneous’ (ad-hoc tasks that don’t make it to any to-do list). I figured I didn’t need to keep miscellaneous tasks in a separate section but it would help to keep a section for emails I referenced every now and then. It would save me the time I spent searching. So I decided I would configure 4 inboxes and label them as Tasks, Awaiting Reply, Delegated/Shared Work and Reference.
  • Once you’ve decided on the number of ‘inboxes’, go to Settings > Stars and select equivalent number of icons there. These are the ones I use
  • Go to Settings > Gmail Labs > Enable Multiple Inboxes > Hit Save
  • Go to Settings > Multiple Inboxes > Configure the settings for each panel. This is what my settings looks like

And you’re done!

I find this method really simple to use and manage. All the stuff that fits in any of the inboxes, sits there. New unread/read messages sit in my inbox and everything else is archived and moved out of my sight forever unless the need arises in the future. Zero clutter whatsoever.

Like all methods, this one too has its pros and cons.

Pros

  • Easy to move emails to a specific inbox (1,2,3 or 4 clicks)
  • Serves as a to-do list
  • Marking mails as unread/read makes no difference whatsoever
  • Everything you need to look at is right in front of you and more importantly, everything else isn’t
  • Even if you forget to add a star, unless you archive an email, which takes conscious effort, it will continue to sit in your inbox until an action is taken on it

Cons

  • Doesn’t work on mobile.
  • If emails in one ‘inbox’ exceed max limit set, they get hidden from you.

Thankfully, I can live with both those limitations :)

If you’d like to set this up for yourself, Andreas Klinger, the CTO of Product Hunt, has written a much more detailed post on the subject. It is in fact his article that led me to discover the beauty of multiple inboxes last summer.


Besides using the right inbox style, there are a lot of other tools, tips and tricks that have made my life simpler.

1.Don’t delete emails — Always archive. You never know what you might need. Gmail provides a lot of space so make the most of it.

2. Gmail search — This is perhaps my most favourite thing about Gmail. The search so powerful and simple to use. Using a combination of the following operators, I can find almost anything

  • to: — To which email address the email was sent to.
    eg. to: team@inperpetualbeta.com
  • from: — From which email address the email was sent 
    eg. from: aamnakhan28@gmail.com
  • has:attachment — Searches for emails with attachments
  • filename: — Searches contents of the filenames of attachments 
    eg. has:attachment filename:pdf
  • in: — Searches within the contents of folder specified 
    eg. in:inbox
  • “ “ (double-quotes) — Search for an exact match to the enclosed string eg. “perpetual beta”
  • You can find more operators here.

3. Keyboard shortcuts — I move through my email faster thanks to them. Highly recommended memorising the most basic ones at least. If you need help learning(and use Gmail), you can use the Key Rocket browser plugin.

4. Undo Send — If you don’t already know about this, today is your lucky day. Yes, you can un-send an email. This feature sat in the Gmail Labs section for a long time and was made a part of General settings only last year. You can even configure for how long you want the undo-send option to persist after sending an email.

Credits: introvertfreelance.tumblr.com

5. Canned Responses — This is great when you’re doing outreach or outbound sales and want to send the same content to multiple people but you also want to personalise the email. You can enable them under Settings > Labs. You can also send automated canned responses when a configured rule is triggered (like a vacation responder but better).

6. Setup Smart Filters — There are some emails that you wish to receive but not read. They just end up cluttering your inbox. For example, we use Crashlytics in our mobile app. I do wish to receive crash reports but I don’t want my inbox getting cluttered with them. So I’ve setup a smart filter which auto archives any crash report and adds a label called ‘Crashlytics’ to it for easy access later.

You can read more about creating Gmail filters here.

7. Any.do Browser Extension — I’m a big fan of any.do. Their browser extension acts like a Gmail plugin which gives an option to add reminders and it pre-fills the text box contextually!

Mind = Blown

You can get the extension here.

8. Gmail backup — I have tried only one service and it worked really well. I recommend GYB (got your back). It lets you do a lot of cool things (such as not backing up emails you don’t require etc). It does require you to use the command line but it’s a cakewalk, trust me.

9. If you’re obsessive about your email habits and want to measure how much time you’re spending checking your email, try Rescue Time.

10. If you’re just fed up of receiving mails, hit the Pause button.


I recently came back from a week long vacation to find 200 unread emails in my inbox and experienced no anxiety whatsoever. #smallwins


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