Andrew McDonough

Reply/Star/Archive/Spam - Achieving Inbox Zero using four important keyboard shortcuts in Gmail

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.


And so I come to the system that I have found works best for me.  It is a hybrid of some of the ideas above, but even simpler.  I have decided that I don't need a "Hold" category as Gmail's search is so powerful.  Instead use Gmail's "Star" functionality as my "Follow Up" folder.

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:

Action Shortcut Key Decision
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.
Of course this system only deals with clearing your inbox. You will also need to process your Starred folder regularly to make sure anything that needs further attention gets done, but at least you can see a clear list of emails that require action, separate from new messages.

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

Andrew McDonough is a consultant CTO and software developer, currently based between Berlin and London.

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