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Instrumental behaviour: Inbox zero - A guide

4 Post author: Elo 12 January 2016 07:28AM

This will be brief.

Inbox zero is a valuable thing to maintain.  Roughly promoted around the web as having an empty inbox.

An email inbox collects a few things:

  • junk
  • automatic mail sent to you
  • personal mail sent to you
  • work sent to you
  • (maybe - work you send to yourself because that's the best way to store information for now)
An inbox is a way to keep track of "how much I have to do yet".  Because of this; it's incredibly valuable to try to get to inbox zero.

This guide is for anyone with bajillions of emails in their inbox, some read; some not.  If you have an email system in place; don't change it.  if not - get one.  (maybe not this one - but do it).



0. decide that this is a good idea (this can be done after) but mostly I want to say - don't half-arse this, you might end up in a no-mans-land between the old and the new.

1. A program.  
I recommend Thunderbird because it's free.  I used to work in a webmail system but the speed of webmail is a joke in comparison to local mail.  also offline-powers are handy from time to time.  (Disadvantage - not always having backups for everything)

2. Archive system
This being January 2016 we are going to make a few main folders.  
  • Old as all hell (or other friendly name)
  • 2014
  • 2015
  • 2016
Anything older than 2014 will probably never get looked at again; (just ask any email veteran) That's okay - that's what archives are for.

3. Old
Put anything old into the old folder

4. 2014
That was two years ago!  it will also go the same way as old-as-all-hell, but for now it can sit in 2014.

5. 2015
two options here - either:
a. leave them in your inbox and through the year sort them into the 2015 folder; remembering that things that old should go to sleep easy.
b. put them in 2015 where you can look at them when you need them.

6. 2016
There are a few simple behaviours that make the ongoing use of the system handy.
a. if you read a thing, and you have no more to do with it; file it away into 2016
b. if you read a thing and still have more to do; leave it in the inbox (If you can resolve it in under 5 minutes; try to do it now)
c. if you don't plan to read a thing AND it's not important AND you don't want to delete it; I strongly advise unsubscribing from the source; finding a way to stop them from coming in, or setting up a rule to auto-sort into a folder.
d.  Every automatically generated email has an unsubscribe button at the bottom.  If you have a one-time unsubscribe policy you will never have to see the same junk twice.
e. do some work; answer emails; send other emails etc.  and file things as you go.

7. other email folders
sure sometimes things need a bit of preserving; sometimes things need sorting - go ahead and do that.  Don't let me stop you.



Using this fairly ordinary system I can get my total email time down to about half an hour a week.

Don't like it? find a better system.  But don't leave them all there.

Final note: I have an email address for things I subscribe to that is separate to the email address I give out or use; this way I can check my subscriptions quickly without mixing them up with work/life/important things.


This post came out of a discussion in the IRC.  It took 30mins to write and is probably full of errors and in need of improving; this was written with no research and there are likely better systems in existence.  It partially incorporates a "Getting Things Done" attitude but I might post more about that soon.

Feel free to share your system in the comments, or suggest improvements.

Other posts I have written can be found in my Table of contents

Comments (12)

Comment author: gjm 12 January 2016 01:01:03PM 5 points [-]

This seems to cover everything about getting to "inbox zero" except the nontrivial bits of actually getting to "inbox zero".

That is: I bet most people with overflowing inboxes have lots of things in those inboxes that they can neither classify immediately as "no more to do" nor resolve in a few minutes. And what stops those people getting their inboxes down to zero is (1) all the work required to deal with those things, and (2) the psychological discomfort caused by thinking about #1. And nothing in here says anything about how to deal with that situation.

Comment author: solipsist 14 January 2016 01:59:51PM 1 point [-]

And nothing in here says anything about how to deal with that situation.

I read the advice as:

If you still have unresolved emails from 2015 in your inbox then keeping emails in your inbox isn't causing them to get resolved. Accept that, get a clean slate, and move on.

Make a folder called "old inbox" and put all your old emails there. Now you have an empty inbox! The costs of putting your old emails out of sight are less than the benefits of keeping an empty inbox going forward.

Comment author: gjm 14 January 2016 05:37:27PM 0 points [-]

I do not believe the intention of the advice given is that emails in your inbox that you feel require some reponse, but that you don't see how to deal with completely in a few minutes, should be archived and forgotten. (Perhaps I misunderstood?)

Comment author: solipsist 14 January 2016 08:13:01PM 0 points [-]

Don't know, not the original author. What do you think the chances are than an email on the third page of your inbox will ever get a reply? Inbox purgatory seems to me like a way to give up on something without having to admit it yourself.

If my inbox has more than 40 or 50 items in it I feel demoralized and find it harder to work through newer items, so the easiest way for me to stay at steady-state is to keep my inbox at zero or close to it.

Counterpoint: I've kept to an empty inbox for many years, but know people with ever-growing inboxes whom I consider more organized and responsive. I've never declared email bankruptcy during my professional life and don't know the consequences.

Comment author: Elo 13 January 2016 04:27:09AM 0 points [-]

There is some implicit training in this process; by the time you have created "very old" and "<last year>" you are on the way to sorting things slightly better than you have before; or getting a perspective on "things that have expired or passed". I almost certainly didn't explain that very well.

I can't teach to (2) other than to say that after the activation energy (of setting up the system) it's mostly gone from every-day experience. As for (1) - dealing with things; and having a minor sorting system makes it easier to realise how much there is/isn't. and can help you actually get a handle on it.

Does that help?

Comment author: caffemacchiavelli 20 January 2016 03:14:26AM *  0 points [-]

Happy to share my system. This isn't supposed to be a jab at zero inboxing, I just never felt the need to physically move email. I've been using multiple addresses, filters and tags since long before I actually had things to do and they actually continue to do the job pretty well.

My current set-up looks something like this:

  • Bulk inbox for everything unsorted.
  • Business inbox for everything sent to me about my job by a person.
  • Ad inbox for everything sent to me about my job by a robot.
  • Accounts inbox for bills I intend to keep and any financial mail.
  • Chat inbox for forum updates and responses to blog posts. >90% university-related discussions.
  • Private inbox for close friends and family. When my phone is not on priority mode, I also get a notification for these.
  • Subscription inbox for newsletters and advertisements at me personally. I go through these after work and sometimes tag stuff I want to read during dead time (e.g. waiting in line).

Bulk, Ads, Accounts and Subscription get automatically marked as read when I shut down the program.

Filters sort >90% of my mail for me and are mostly based on the address used, as it saves me the time to manually add the sender to my filters (and hope they only use one email). Since my starting screen shows the bulk folder, I can just glance at the other <10% and move on, as it's usually unimportant. Today's bulk mail includes two Japanese book shop coupons, Reddit, two seminar invites, a reminder at myself and a meetup proposal.

I also have an emergency email which has no inbox but forwards mails directly to my phone in all situations. Never been used, of course, because nobody remembers obscure email addresses in emergencies (and my life actually isn't as action-filled as one would expect the life of a business consultant with a dozen email filters to be...). Still, I like the idea of handing them out in the hope that it makes my other addresses "non-emergency" by contrast.

Each inbox currently holds several thousands of emails and after a few tantrums at having deleted that one email, they will likely stay undisturbed for the next couple of years.

Comment author: Elo 20 January 2016 04:38:50AM 0 points [-]

(system sounds really good)

How many emails are you getting per day + per year for each of the addresses?

Comment author: PipFoweraker 12 January 2016 10:40:26PM *  0 points [-]

One suggestion is to consider having more than one email for the purposes of separating emails from people who email you about personal things and people who email you about work things. This may be useful in addition to the suggestion in OP to have a separate email for subscriptions/mailing lists.

This has been useful to me in the past for being able to effectively segment my 'work life' while on holidays or taking a break without missing out on social updates and emails from friends and family members. Aslo, when I am on holidays in non-urban environments I frequently don't have the spare bandwidth to download all my work emails to my desktop client as easily as at home.

I suggest conssidering this methodology to delineate a nice, clean mental 'break' and to avoid the temptations of 'just glancing' at work-related emails that come from having a general email address.

Comment author: LessWrong 12 January 2016 11:56:21AM *  -1 points [-]

You haven't mentioned passwords. Use a good one. [http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/936:_Password_Strength] EDIT: I'm not a security expert. I'm in the same boat with Bruce Schneier as far as my knowledge is concerned. I suppose someone with better mathematical skills could run a few calculations.

Also of note is that while you may tell Thunderbird to delete an email, it might actually still be stored on the email server itself so you might have to manually delete it from there.

Lastly you could also promote some GPG in there, although that's a different can of worms.

Comment author: gjm 12 January 2016 12:58:41PM 4 points [-]

You haven't mentioned passwords.

He also hasn't mentioned that you should exercise regularly, eat vegetables, invest in index funds, and not get addicted to heroin. Why should there be anything about passwords in an article advising people on how to get accumulated cruft out of their email inboxes?