I’ve long been aware of the Inbox Zero notion, and never really got it. My Google inbox has 6,457 messages and my personal inbox 5,096; none are unread and I feel no stress. Recently I’ve noticed that lots of people have huge numbers of unread emails staring them in the face, more or less all the time I guess. This would drive me crazy in about fifteen minutes. So, as a Christmas present to the world, here is my recipe for maintaining an unread count of zero; a condition I’ll call Low-stress Inbox.
You Decide When to Read · Set up your mail so that when you’re not looking at it, there are no bright red numbers anywhere on your screen pestering you about what’s unread. Yes, email occupies a significant chunk of my day, every day. But it happens when I decide to make time for it, not because I’m being driven there by some red pixels on my screen.
Filter · For this strategy to work, you have to arrange that, when you do switch over to your email window, you’re not faced with a horrifyingly huge splodge of input. This means that you have to filter routine or non-work or otherwise ignorable traffic away from your inbox. Most modern mail software makes this terribly easy, and you’re crazy if you don’t do it. In my case, this includes messages of the form “Sallie is now following you on Twitter”, “Irving has shared eight photos on Flickr”, and so on. These go in their own mailboxes, which I never read but sometimes search.
Delete · The first thing I do when I open my inbox is delete, delete, delete. Your email software probably has some keyboard shortcuts to make this easy; go learn them. In Gmail, it’s “x” to mark a message, “j” and “k” to move up and down the list; then “#” to delete everything you’ve marked. Be ruthless; delete at least three quarters of your traffic unread, and rest in peace knowing that, if it mattered, someone will remind you.
Reporting spam doesn’t reduce the load as much as deleting, but is satisfying and has its own keyboard shortcuts.
Archive · There’s another category of emails that I don’t need to read, or to deal with, but might be useful later; they need to be shuffled away where they don’t distract me. Gmail has a useful “Archive” function that achieves this; so useful that I suspect other email software must have something with a similar effect. Once again, learn the keyboard shortcuts.
Read ’em All · After I’ve done all these things, there remain a few emails that I actually have to look at. Once I start, I leave email-reading on top of the stack, subject to interruptions of one sort or another, until I’ve made it through.
I’m ruthless about deleting or archiving as noted above.
Deal or Ignore · After all this has been done, there remains the stuff that really needs attention. I have the advantage of being a fast reader and a fast typist, so things that require routine responses — “Yes, Wednesday is OK for that”, “No, changing MUST to SHOULD is a terrible idea”, “Here’s that screenshot I promised you” — get done pretty fast.
And yeah, that leaves a few that I don’t want to nuke or file away or deal with right now. Sometimes they’re a contribution to an interesting thread that I may join later, sometimes they’re asking a question that I don’t have the answer for, sometimes they need some actual real time-consuming work.
Those will either get dealt with, or fade into the thousands of read-but-eventually-forgotten others in the inbox. If I ignore them but they were important, eventually someone will remind me. And if I need to find them (which I do, all the time), that’s what search is for.
For Laughs · So I scrolled back in my mail; the first one still lurking in my work inbox, from March 10, 2010, is entitled “Access Gmail on your mobile phone“; and on my personal account it’s “Annotated XML & Unicode SPEC differs in UTF description” from January 2007.