July 02, 2009
It’s easy to let your email get on top of you. Fortunately, since I moved to Gmail for my domain, it has been to be a lot easier to avoid being overcome by an overcrowded inbox. For the last year or so, I have been trying to implement Inbox Zero, a system that I first heard about from productivity expert Merlin Mann. It involves processing your inbox regularly and moving all emails to a trusted place where they can be processed later. After a single pass, your inbox should be empty.
My first attempt at implementation was to create a number of labels (folders) that corresponded to the lists suggested by Dave Allen in his book Getting Things Done; Next Actions, Projects, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe. I quickly found this to be over complicated and decided to move to the Trusted Trio method suggested by Gina Trapani on the Lifehacker blog. I found this much more manageable because it used fewer folders, and the follow-up Lifehacker article, ”Empty your inbox with Gmail and The Trusted Trio” helped with suggestions of how to implement the system in Gmail.
Despite a significant rise in my email productivity, I still found processing my inbox fairly time consuming, and it was easy to fall out of the habit of Inbox Zero if I let my inbox get too full, particularly if I’d been away from my computer for a few days. I realised that the bottleneck for clearing my inbox was the process of moving the messages into the appropriate folders.
I tend to find using the keyboard much more efficient than the mouse and so I looked into the keyboard shortcuts to move the emails. The ‘V’ shortcut key for “Move To” helps, but I still had to type the start of the folder name. I needed a system where I could process the majority of emails with a single key press.
I start processing my inbox by clicking on the first (most recent) email in my inbox. I then make a decision on what needs to be done with it. If it needs a reply, and the reply can be written in under two minutes, I hit the ‘r’ key and start writing. If the email needs a reply or another action, but to do so would take more than two minutes, I hit the ’s’ key to star the email, and then ’[’ to archive it. If the email doesn’t require any further actions, but I need to keep it for reference, I archive it by pressing the ’[’ (left square bracket) key. Finally, if somehow an email has managed to break through Google’s excellent spam filter, I hit the ’!’ (exclaimation mark) key. This is more helpful than simply deleting the message as it helps Google identify future spam. I find that the majority of my emails don’t require any action at all, but I prefer to keep all non-spam messages for reference. Gmail’s huge storge and lightning-fast search facility means there rarely a reason to do so.
So to summarise, the four important keys you need:
|Reply||r||Reply/Action required taking less than two minutes|
|Archive and next message||[||No action required. Keep archive.|
|Star||s||Reply/Action required taking more than two minutes|
|Spam||!||Spam. Delete and report it.|
One final note, if you’d prefer to process your inbox starting at the last (oldest) email rather than the first (newest) one, simply use the ’]’ (right angle braket) key instead of the left one.
Andrew McDonough is a consultant CTO and software developer, currently based between Berlin and London.
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