Fanta Zero Lemon CanI have been trying to get better at managing my time lately, and I realized that one thing that’s constantly weighing on my mind is the fact that my inbox (email, etc) is crazy overflowing with stuff to remember, stuff to do, stuff to reference, etc. I need to tackle it, clean things out, and get it down to zero.

So I did.

Yes, that’s right.. I got my gmail (10,000+ messages) and my work email (3,000+) down to zero. They’re not ALWAYS at zero, but by the end of the day, they’re zero zero zero zero zero.

I still have things to do.. projects to work on.. etc.. but those items are put in folders that I check regularly & keep up to date. So if I have 10 minutes, I can sit down and go through my “to do” folder. Or I can check my “waiting for” folder.

It’s kind of a GTD (getting things done) technique.. but here’s how I did it.

  • Create a folder called “to review”
  • Create another folder called “archives”
  • Create another folder called “do now”
  • Create another folder called “waiting for”
  • Start as far back in your email as you can, and start going through email by email and ask yourself these questsions:
    • Is there any action I need to take? Can I delete it?
    • Can I delegate it?
    • Can I do it in under 2 minutes?
    • Can I defer it?

If there’s no action you need to take and you can delete it, just delete it. And then search your email for anything by that person/place/etc that you can also delete. I get a lot of “mailing list” messages that I never delete.. so I find all those and BAM, 120 messages gone.
If you can’t “delete” it, but you can’t take an action on it, shove it into the archives folder. You can create sub-folders in there if you want for projects, friends, etc. But get it out of your inbox.
If there is an action that needs to be taken, first ask.. can you give that action to someone else? If so, do that. Then delete or archive the email. Or shove it into a folder called “waiting for” so you can go back later and see if the person did what you asked them to.
If you can’t give it to someone else.. ask, can you do it in under 2 minutes? If you can.. put it in the “do now” folder.
If you can’t do it in under 2 minutes, put it in the “to review” folder. If you want, you can categorize that folder as well.. “jira tickets”, “personal”, “blah blah”.. or just throw them in for later review.

Now, go through each email doing this. Be harsh. If you don’t need it, really get rid of it. And go fast. Try not to spend more than 10 seconds on any particular email. Do groups if you can. The goal is to get everything OUT of your inbox and into the two folders “do now” and “to review”.

Once your inbox is empty, give yourself 10, 20 minutes to do the “do now” items. Just start from the top and do them. If they’re “done” and you’re waiting for a response.. put the email in the “waiting for” folder. If you want to store the email for reference, throw it in the archives. Or delete it if you don’t need it.

Now go through your “to review” folder and for each item think to yourself “what is the outcome I want from this item?” Either it’s “a room booked with all the leads” or “a sweet jacket” or “bob’s party planned” or whatever. Then, write down what the next action is that will help you get there. Make it an active action. “Get the beer” isn’t an action.. “Call beer store and order beer” is a good action. It’s specific. Then create a folder, or todo list, or something that allows you to associate those “next actions” with the item you’re reading. Then go on to the next, and the next. Process everything in your “to review” folder BEFORE doing any actions.

Then, you can look at that list and see all your “next actions” and you can figure out what’s the most important step to take.



5 Responses to Getting your email inbox to 0

  1. Dan says:

    Impressive task! I’ve been a fan of a GTD-style time management system for a while now and am always on the lookout to test new/better applications to help keep track of things. There are tons of great applications, but nothing seems to fit my exact needs….uh….exactly.

    Currently I’m using Remember The Milk. Is there any particular software you’re using that you’d recommend?

  2. jason says:

    I’m trying a bunch of things. my problem .. or shall I say “challenge” is that I can’t use any kind of web-based GTD tool because what I do at work needs to be secure.

    So currently I’m using Task PRO on my iPhone to manage tasks, and then just folders in Outlook to handle email. I’d love to have an integrated system, though..

  3. Olivier L. says:

    Hey Jason, funny enough I also started to apply the inbox 0 strategy 2 weeks ago and I am doing pretty good right now.

    An other thing I am doing is to only check my emails twice a day to avoid interruptions ala Tim Ferriss

  4. Dan says:

    Yeah, I have a similar issue working for the USAF. Although, the same issue that won’t let me use a web-based tool at work also doesn’t allow me to bring work home without quite a bit of authorization first. So it doesn’t happen often. As a result I haven’t really run into a huge issue just using an isolated Outlook at work for my task management and then using Remember The Milk for all my personal tasks.

    It does kind of suck sometimes to have two separate task lists…

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