Gone are the days of email’s infancy when “You’ve got mail!” was a delightful and potentially romantic announcement. Now just the two words “email inbox” put together in a sentence are enough to make anyone, regardless of profession, break out into a cold sweat.
If you’re like me, you had almost given upon reading the posts about this email system or that methodology that would save your email inbox. After all, every one I tried worked for about two days. Until the weekend hit and my inbox was slammed and I never quite got back out from under it.
But one day I asked a question on Twitter that led me to the Inbox Zero video. And while my inbox still isn’t staying at zero, it is staying at a more reasonable and manageable amount than it ever has been before–despite the fact that I’m getting more emails than ever these days.
So how did I slay the email dragon and get back on top of my inbox? Here are my four sanity-saving secrets.
1. Declare inbox bankruptcy.
Those 1,729 emails in your inbox? They probably aren’t earth-shattering if you’ve left them there that long. Archive them. (Yes, I really had that many in one of my four inboxes. And yes, I archived them. Every single one.) Declare inbox bankruptcy and start over.
2. Use archives, not folders.
Truly. Forget the 101 folders with the perfect hierarchy. Deciding which one to file the email away in takes time, expanding the folder and dragging the email in there takes more time. If the email requires no more action from you, either Archive it or Delete it. In Gmail, what you delete will be gone forever (in 30 days or less your trash will automatically be emptied). Archived items are easy to find through Gmail’s quick (and smart!) search function. There’s no need to use a folder when searching is faster.
3. Unsubscribe, ruthlessly.
Before you hit delete on those emails that keep pouring into your inbox, ask yourself if you can just unsubscribe. If you’re never reading the email, or if the information can be easily found elsewhere, unsubscribe. Use Feedly for the blogs you follow. Keep your email subscriptions to those that you actually look forward to and almost always read in detail. And even for those, use Gmail’s Tabs to keep your subscriptions separate from your important messages or try Unroll.me for a daily digest instead of your subscriptions.
4. Don’t just check your email; process it.
The internet-famous Inbox Zero video reminds us that we can spend all day just checking our email, rather than actually replying to it. Turn off notifications if necessary, so that when you sit down to your email you will take the time to actually process it. Reply, delegate, forward—do whatever you need to do with the email that can be done in three minutes or less—then archive it and be done. For the emails that require a longer reply or action, schedule a chunk of time or take them one by one as time allows. Whatever you do, don’t spend all day reading your email without doing anything about it.
So tell me, what’s your secret to keeping your inbox at (or near) zero?
6 Months Later:
I am so thankful for the day I found Inbox Zero! Now, thanks to the Gmail Send & Archive button in Google Labs and the “Todoist for Gmail” extension for Chrome, my inbox stays manageable and my sanity is intact. (Read more about how I use Todoist to increase my productivity.)