Instrumental behaviour: Inbox zero - A guide

by Elo2 min read12th Jan 201612 comments


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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
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