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Inbox zero - A guide - v2 (Instrumental behaviour)

2 Post author: Elo 11 March 2017 09:34AM

This post is modified from the original.

Original post: Instrumental behaviour: Inbox zero - A guide

This version was first posted at: http://bearlamp.com.au/instrumental-behaviour-inbox-zero-a-guide-v2/


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".  But that's not really what it is.  Somewhere along the lines from "I will send via courier a hand scribed letter to yonder", became newsletters, essays, spam, and many more things mixed together.  Because of this; iit'st's pretty hard to tell how much work is really in an inbox.  Is it 5 minutes to read this one, or do I have to write an essay back?  It's pretty important to be in understanding of what volume of work awaits you.  The trick to doing this is doing the incredibly valuable task of getting to inbox zero.  

The basic philosophy is that a full inbox and unread emails are not a good place to be keeping at bay the unknowns of "how much work I have to do".  Instead; other lists, folders, or organisation systems are better at that.  And if you don't already do it; have ONE list (or like, this advice is complicated, there are different types of lists, but if you have more than one of the same type of lists, you are bound to confuddle up your process and end up doing the other ones that you didn't need to do instead of the ones that you did need to do).

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, alternative: IMAP - duplicates online and offline.)

2. Archive system

This being 2017 we are going to make a few main folders.  

  • Old as all hell (or other friendly name)
  • 2015
  • 2016
  • 2017

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. 2015

That was two years ago!  it will also go the same way as old-as-all-hell, but for now it can sit in 2015.

5. 2016

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 2016 where you can look at them when you need them.

6. 2017

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 2017

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. (or set up a second email address for signing up to newsletters)

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.

f. mammoth - these emails are huge-ass things.  they are the result of a days worth of work to do, and send back the results.  Don't leave them in the inbox.  Something that big belongs on a serious to-do list.  You can generate other folders.  Including a folder for those juggling balls that are up in the air, waiting for the replies to come back, as well as mammoths, and a folder for emails from mum that you can't delete but you also can't quite file.

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.  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.

Comments (2)

Comment author: Kyre 14 March 2017 05:31:07AM 1 point [-]

Good advice, but I would go further. Don't use your inbox as a to-do list at all. I maintain a separate to-do list for roughly three reasons.

(1) You can't have your inbox in chronological and priority order. Keeping an inbox and email folders in chronological order is good for searching and keeping track of email conversations.

(2) Possibly just my own psychological quirk, but inbox emails feel like someone waiting for me and getting impatient. I can't seem to get away from my inbox fundamentally representing a communications channel with people on the other end. Watching me.

(3) When I "do email", I know I'm done when I have literally inbox zero, and I get the satisfaction of that several times a day.

I have found that I need scrupulous email and task accounting though. Every email gets deleted (and that advice on unsubscribing is good), or handled right away (within say 2 minutes), or gets a task on a to-do list and the email goes into a subject folder for when it comes to be dealt with.

Comment author: korin43 11 March 2017 03:20:13PM 0 points [-]

I just started doing this at my new job and found it extremely useful. I used to lose important mail in the backlog all the time, but now everything in my inbox is either unread or a reminder of a task I need to finish. I tend to leave my huge tasks in the inbox too, but I might change that if I start having a lot of them.