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How to Reach Inbox Zero for Life

Editor's Note: The concept of Inbox Zero has been around for awhile, but now it's no longer some  "Herculean Achievement." Keith Rarick, a programmer at Heroku, shares some tips on how not only to get to Inbox Zero, but stay there.

DO THIS

  1. Use the Gmail web UI with shortcut keys.
  2. Mute. Heavily. The m shortcut key is your friend.
  3. Triage. Your one and only goal for processing your inbox is to make it empty. Not to actually do anything productive, because processing email is inherently anti-productive. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re doing work here. Just get it over with as quickly as possible. For each message in your inbox, quickly choose one of these things:
    • Mute the conversation. (Press m.)
    • Read (or skim) it and archive. (Press e.)
    • If it requires action and it’ll take you less than 30 seconds, DIFN and archive the message. (Press e.)
    • If it requires action and it would take you 30 seconds or more, star and archive it immediately. (Press s thene.)
    • It is permitted to begin replying to a message and then realize it’ll take longer than you thought. In that case you should defer the rest of your reply. (Press se.)
    If it takes you more than, say, three seconds to decide which thing to do, star and archive. (Press se.) You can get rid of a hundred threads this way in five minutes. Now your inbox is empty. You’re welcome. You still have a to-do list, and it is not empty.
  4. Check starred items. Press g then s. Open this folder regularly. gs. It’s your new home. Learn to love it. gs. If there were a way to make this folder the one you see first when you log in, I would tell you to do that.
  5. Process your inbox again! gi. Later, at some time in the future, when you feel emotionally centered. Maybe after you’ve completed something from your starred items and you’re feeling good about yourself. gi. Certainly not while you’re in the middle of doing something useful. But don’t just “check” your inbox, process it. If you’ve gone to the trouble of opening it up, you might as well rip through those messages (there are only like two of them now since it was empty before) and get it empty again.
  6. Survey the universe. gs gi. It’s easy to bounce between these two folders. gs gi. You know, get an overview of what’s going on. Expect to have 0–4 items in each of these folders most of the time. Tending toward the 0 side. Not too bad, eh?
  7. Pick one thing from your starred items and do that thing.When you’ve finished, unstar it. (Press y.)

That’s it, really. Looks like a lot of rules, now that I’ve typed them all out, but it’s not so bad. Just remember,triage.

DO NOT

  1. Do not mark as unread. To-do items are hereby banned from your inbox. Also, you don’t need that this-item-is-unread-and-the-font-is-bold visual treatment to distinguish to-do items from other mail. A star is sufficient. Your to-do list, the starred items folder, is such a tranquil place now. Namaste. (Exception: you’re looking at a message and legitimately don’t have time to read it because you must abort processing mail. Mark it as unread and leave it in the inbox with all the other messages you actually haven’t read.)
  2. Do not use priority inbox. Turn it off; you don’t need it any more. Classic inbox all the way. Those little yellow “important” markers? Turn those off too. They’re nothing but a distraction.
  3. Do not use push notifications for incoming mail on your phone. You really don’t want to be interrupted, distracted by incoming mail while you’re doing actual work. You decide when to process your inbox.

So, does all this work? I didn’t know when I started out, but figured it was worth a shot at least. My biggest worry was that I’d just move the problem to another place: instead of an ever-growing inbox I’d have an ever-growing starred items folder. But a curious thing happened. My heavy inbox burden shrank a bit after the first processing session. And it just kept shrinking. My new starred items burden feels qualitatively different. Staring at a bold to-do-list inbox makes it all too easy to throw up your hands and close the browser. After all, even if you were to pick one of those emails and take care of it, it’d probably be replaced with 3 more, like a hydra, by the time you returned to your inbox. The ground is constantly shifting under you. On the other hand, your starred items folder only ever contains things that you put there. You can look at it, pick one thing to do, do that thing, and look again: there is now one fewer thing! You and you alone decide when to process incoming mail and star new messages. This might seem like an academic distinction, but let me tell you, it feels worlds apart, and I actually manage to knock off my starred items at a regular pace. They don’t pile up. Now, getting to inbox zero is no longer some Herculean achievement, no longer worthy of announcing to the world. After a few weeks doing this stuff I didn’t just get there, I’ve stayed at inbox zero virtually the entire time. And it feels pretty easy to maintain that way. I expect no inbox creep in my future. Inbox zero for life! download now eBook

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