Inbox: Zeroed.

E-Mail is a pest, a big time killer wasting your and my time each and every day. Of course it is also a valuable tool, one that no one can renounce. So how can it be of more use than trouble?

So far I’ve followed a no-delete policy when it comes to my mails, since space was not a problem at all. But it developed into a big nasty pile of mails, that brought regular distraction, each time I looked at my inbox. So I decided to adopt the Inbox zero concept.

Step 1: Get the pile down

My e-mails piled up since years, so I had around 10000 mails in my inbox, with some hundred being unread. I needed to get this pile down and started with the most recent mails, trying to identify clusters of mails, filtering for them and then following these steps:

  • prevent: A lot of mails I get are: newsletters and mailinglist posts (e.g. Debian lists and some open source products). For each of them, I decided if I really want them to go to my inbox. If not: unsubscribe.
  • file or delete: Do I need it for reference or should it go to trash? I trashed basically every newsletter and mail(s) for which copies exist (e.g. mailinglist posts) and archived everything where I was unsure. It doesn’t matter, really. Important is, that the inbox get’s down to zero, because that’s where you spend your daily time. Your archive folders can be as full as good as your search function is 😉

Since it wasn’t possible to decide on a course for every mail (that would be a bit like hoovering in the dessert), I did this only for the first 1000 of mails or so. All mails older than a month were marked read and moved to archive immediately after. Another approach would be to move all files to a folder called DMZ and go to step 2.

Step 2: Prepare for implanting some habits

Most mails are the opposite of good old hackish perl code: read only. They are easy to act on, when they come around: just archive or delete them.

But the rest will be what steals your time. Some mails require action, either immediately or in a while, some wait for a schedule, e.g. flight informations or reservation mails and stuff. Whatever the reason is, you want to keep them around, because they still have a purpose. There are various filing systems for those mails, most of them GTD variants. As a gmail user I found this variant, with multiple inboxes in a special gmail view, interesting and now give it a try.

One word about the archive folders. I can highly recommend to reduce the number of folders you archive to as much as possible.

Step 3: Get into habit

Now to the hard part. Get into habit with acting on your inbox. Do it regularly, maybe every hour or so and be prepared to do quick decisions.

Act on any mail immediately, which means either file/delete it, reply to it (if this is what takes less time) or „mark“ it according to your filing system as prepared in step 2. And if no mails arrived, then it’s a good moment to review your marked mails if any on them can be further processed.

Now let’s see weither my inbox will still be zeroed in a month from now.