How I Tamed My Inbox

empty inbox Guess what? I finally cracked the nut on keeping my email inbox empty. The trick is all in what you do when you get them in. I’ll share what I did, and if it works for you, great. If it starts to fail for me, I’ll tell you so in another post. But I have a good feeling about this.

You’ll Need

  • An archive folder (in Gmail, this is a button. On other systems, you need somewhere to store stuff, in case you need to search for details later).
  • A calendaring software. I use Google Calendar.
  • A project tracking software. I use Things for Mac. You could use anything lets you group projects into contexts.
  • A file folder structure (online at least, and maybe mirrored in the real world – hat tip to my hero,Get it Done Guy, for this).
  • Two processes: sorting when mail comes in, and reviewing your projects regularly.

Quick Overview

Next, I’ll explain how this all works together. I’ll talk about:

  • Processing incoming mail.
  • Using the Calendar.
  • Project Structure.
  • Consistent Review.

Processing Incoming Mail

Mail comes in- Check mail X times a day tops. (I’m trying for 4, but not there yet). When it comes in, see if you can just reply right away. Try to close all informational loops in one go. Points off for “ping pong” emails.

Process step 1- If it’s not a “right away” answer, sort it into a project area. I’m calling “project areas” out by context. In Getting Things Done, David Allen uses physical context, like @computer, @phone, @mall. In my case, I’ve used the following project contexts:

  • Family/Home – my first priority, of course.
  • Commitments – these are things where someone’s awaiting a response or action for me that takes more than a few minutes.
  • Projects – These are more regimented things, like when the boss asks you to build out a new experience at a conference.
  • Speaking – I do lots of speaking, and I want to keep my commitments straight, and my details sorted.
  • Blogging – This has become where I stuff my “Hey, Chris. I have a social network about porcupines. Will you blog about it?” requests, so I can give them serious thought. (And yes, please feel free to contact me about your special amazing new whatever, if you think it fits the stuff I talk about here).
  • Personal – This deals with things like “file your taxes” and “upgrade cell phone plan” which matter only to me.
  • Research – I have lots of projects that are more for “rainy day” or “someday/maybe” so that’s where those go.

These are MY context areas. You could have completely different ones. More on projects in a bit.

Using the Calendar

If any of my projects are time specific, I put that information into Google Calendar. I then set up the reminders along the way. Further, if the project is large or lengthy, I set up little milestone time frames such that I will remember to work periodically on projects all the way up to their due date.

This part, the setting milestone reminders in the calendar, has changed my effectiveness, but I only JUST started doing this, so I’ll let you know if it makes the difference I hope it does.

Project Structure

UNDER my above-mentioned context areas are specific projects. For all my projects, I have tasks and milestones, notes, tags, and due dates for each part of the project. For example, I have notes and details on a new conference I’m launching for marketers for September in the Boston area.

Like I said earlier, I use Things for the Mac. You could use 37 Signals Basecamp, or MS Project, or whatever. The tool isn’t the point.

Consistent Review

This will all break down fast if I don’t focus on Things as my “go to place” to see what needs doing. And if I don’t make THAT the focus of my day while working on projects, and slip back into hounding my inbox, the whole thing will fail. You’ve heard that someone with two watches can’t tell time? I believe that someone with multiple systems of managing their tasks and projects will probably fall on their face.

I’ve scheduled reviews into Google Calendar recurring over the next few months. If it works, I’ll extend the schedule of little pings to check my responsibilities.

We’ll Check Back On This Later

This is a work in progress. I’ll let you know how it works out for me. In the mean time, tell me about you. How are YOU getting it all done? Does this make sense? Am I missing something obvious? How are you taming the savage project load?

By the way, Things doesn’t sync in any way with my BlackBerry and that’s a huge hole in this process. Hello? Could you fix that for me, Things? Anything?

Okay, what do YOU think?

Things

For another completely different (and most likely better) method, check out the famed and touted Inbox Zero series by Merlin Mann.

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  • http://chrisbrogan.com chrisbrogan

    @E.T. – I don’t, exactly. I do some copy/paste if I need details, but otherwise, I just transfer it up and over. Portage style.

    @Tashjian – good point about not sending to all. Phew.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com chrisbrogan

    @E.T. – I don’t, exactly. I do some copy/paste if I need details, but otherwise, I just transfer it up and over. Portage style.

    @Tashjian – good point about not sending to all. Phew.

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  • Karen

    Re: Frank Carver’s comment 3/22.
    “Having been very frustrated by Outlook’s approach to archiving (which makes archived email much harder to access) in the past, I had never clicked that button in GMail.”

    If there’s anyone out there who still hasn’t figured this out, nevernevernever let Outlook auto-archive your e-mail. If you want to archive messages (say, your employer’s IT department has a limit on how much you can store in your Mailbox), create a personal fold (.pst) and manually drag & drop to it.

    That’s not always efficient, but at least you’ll be able to find what you archived–and if you can’t, what’s the point? This works best if you collect all messages related to a project in one folder (as suggested in Chris’s article) and then move the folder to the archive after the project is complete. Manually. (Did I say that already?)

    OK, some would say the better approach might be to skip Outlook in the first place (although I like it better than most Microsoft products), but if you’re using it this is the way to go.

  • Karen

    Re: Frank Carver’s comment 3/22.
    “Having been very frustrated by Outlook’s approach to archiving (which makes archived email much harder to access) in the past, I had never clicked that button in GMail.”

    If there’s anyone out there who still hasn’t figured this out, nevernevernever let Outlook auto-archive your e-mail. If you want to archive messages (say, your employer’s IT department has a limit on how much you can store in your Mailbox), create a personal fold (.pst) and manually drag & drop to it.

    That’s not always efficient, but at least you’ll be able to find what you archived–and if you can’t, what’s the point? This works best if you collect all messages related to a project in one folder (as suggested in Chris’s article) and then move the folder to the archive after the project is complete. Manually. (Did I say that already?)

    OK, some would say the better approach might be to skip Outlook in the first place (although I like it better than most Microsoft products), but if you’re using it this is the way to go.

  • http://www.judifree.com JudiFree

    I just got to ZERO! Thanks for the inspiration. Now, let’s see if I can keep it there.

  • http://www.judifree.com JudiFree

    I just got to ZERO! Thanks for the inspiration. Now, let’s see if I can keep it there.

  • http://www.generatorland.com MikeR

    I started today and I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Here’s my method:

    Open Outlook every two hours.
    Process emails:
    -Tasks/Projects go into TaskCoach (which now supports dragging and dropping an email to create a new task)
    -FYIs, Thank You’s, most CC:s get read and deleted
    -Anything I TRULY think I might need later for CYA or for reference gets archived in a big archive folder that I’ll search when needed using Copernic.
    -Delete everything else with extreme prejudice

    I let my coworkers and boss know what I was doing and why so they could understand why I wasn’t treating Outlook like an IM client as our team has done in the past. So far so good!

  • http://www.generatorland.com MikeR

    I started today and I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Here’s my method:

    Open Outlook every two hours.
    Process emails:
    -Tasks/Projects go into TaskCoach (which now supports dragging and dropping an email to create a new task)
    -FYIs, Thank You’s, most CC:s get read and deleted
    -Anything I TRULY think I might need later for CYA or for reference gets archived in a big archive folder that I’ll search when needed using Copernic.
    -Delete everything else with extreme prejudice

    I let my coworkers and boss know what I was doing and why so they could understand why I wasn’t treating Outlook like an IM client as our team has done in the past. So far so good!

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  • http://carissathorp.vox.com Carissa Thorp

    I’m using Gmail and Things too. They work great together, especially with the following tips:

    Each item in gmail has a unique address; just choose the New Window link in the top right hand corner. You can drag any link to Things and it will create a new To Do item with a direct link to the email in the Notes section.

    If you’re using Firefox, the add-on QuoteURLText will copy any text you select and the url with one click, ready for pasting into Things.

    The only problem at the moment is that Things doesn’t recognise https (encrypted connection) links and make them clickable. I only use Gmail encrypted, so I have to select any url and choose “Make Link” in the context menu. Hopefully this will be fixed in coming versions.

  • http://carissathorp.vox.com Carissa Thorp

    I’m using Gmail and Things too. They work great together, especially with the following tips:

    Each item in gmail has a unique address; just choose the New Window link in the top right hand corner. You can drag any link to Things and it will create a new To Do item with a direct link to the email in the Notes section.

    If you’re using Firefox, the add-on QuoteURLText will copy any text you select and the url with one click, ready for pasting into Things.

    The only problem at the moment is that Things doesn’t recognise https (encrypted connection) links and make them clickable. I only use Gmail encrypted, so I have to select any url and choose “Make Link” in the context menu. Hopefully this will be fixed in coming versions.

  • http://stopmebeforeiblogagain.com Vidar Andersen

    Great to see yet another one freed from the tyranny of E-Mail herding and procrastinating! :)

    I’ve been an avid ‘inbox zero’ practitioner for a long time myself without knowing it. I’ve recently come to know about David Allen and Merlin Mann and their great contributions to Getting Things Done.

    I guess what makes my ‘methodology’ a bit different is that I do not label or differentiate my mails – and I use my inbox as a list of my current to-dos. I find it much more efficient for me personally.

    I pulled off an attempt to describe what I do to get things done on my blog not so terribly long ago:
    http://stopmebeforeiblogagain.com/are-we-getting-things-done-yet/

    With the advent of GMail, handling my mail has gotten ridiculously easy. Just achive and forget – search when needed. I cannot imagining going back to herding my mail ever again.

    I also recommend the GMail BlackBerry app for getting things done when on the move:
    http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/users/mobile.html

    On another note to fellow Europeans, remember to verify that your devices have been successfully adjusted +1 hours after midnight today, as Daylight Saving Time (DST) ends. ;)

  • http://stopmebeforeiblogagain.com Vidar Andersen

    Great to see yet another one freed from the tyranny of E-Mail herding and procrastinating! :)

    I’ve been an avid ‘inbox zero’ practitioner for a long time myself without knowing it. I’ve recently come to know about David Allen and Merlin Mann and their great contributions to Getting Things Done.

    I guess what makes my ‘methodology’ a bit different is that I do not label or differentiate my mails – and I use my inbox as a list of my current to-dos. I find it much more efficient for me personally.

    I pulled off an attempt to describe what I do to get things done on my blog not so terribly long ago:
    http://stopmebeforeiblogagain.com/are-we-getting-things-done-yet/

    With the advent of GMail, handling my mail has gotten ridiculously easy. Just achive and forget – search when needed. I cannot imagining going back to herding my mail ever again.

    I also recommend the GMail BlackBerry app for getting things done when on the move:
    http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/users/mobile.html

    On another note to fellow Europeans, remember to verify that your devices have been successfully adjusted +1 hours after midnight today, as Daylight Saving Time (DST) ends. ;)

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  • http://inboxdetox.blogspot.com Marsha Egan

    Great post, Chris, and congratulations. Alot of this is about knowing yourself, and taking control!

    One of the things that helps me the most is to go into the inbox with the intention of SORTING frather than WORKING. If anything requires action, I have an Action A folder (for the important stuff)and and Action B folder (for the less important stuff.) This is ONLY where I keep it. Like you, I set a diary for anything that is time sensitive… but the cool thing is now I know exactly where to go to get it. You can flag things to denote family, blog ideas, etc., and search and sort them that way too.

    Then, this all comes together when we plan our days, once a day. That’s when we check our diaries, the Action folders, the phone calls we must return, the meetings, etc… This was featured in my 12 Steps that went ’round the world in February 2007, and alot of folks thought it worked well.

  • http://inboxdetox.blogspot.com Marsha Egan

    Great post, Chris, and congratulations. Alot of this is about knowing yourself, and taking control!

    One of the things that helps me the most is to go into the inbox with the intention of SORTING frather than WORKING. If anything requires action, I have an Action A folder (for the important stuff)and and Action B folder (for the less important stuff.) This is ONLY where I keep it. Like you, I set a diary for anything that is time sensitive… but the cool thing is now I know exactly where to go to get it. You can flag things to denote family, blog ideas, etc., and search and sort them that way too.

    Then, this all comes together when we plan our days, once a day. That’s when we check our diaries, the Action folders, the phone calls we must return, the meetings, etc… This was featured in my 12 Steps that went ’round the world in February 2007, and alot of folks thought it worked well.

  • http://dobedo.org John Kellden

    Great post, thanks Chris. I tag every single incoming email, and then I just leave them be. If there’s something I need to attend to later the same day, I mark those un-read. If there are others that I want to get back to, but can’t do that same day, I put a star on them. By having the most important, most urgent email marked as *unread*, they show up at the bottom right corner, in the Firefox addon Gmail Manager. It’s a godsend.
    There they sit and gently work their *unread* charm in my peripheral vision, until I’ve worked up enough guilt to go ahead and just do it. Answer. Reply. Or somesuch.

  • http://dobedo.org John Kellden

    Great post, thanks Chris. I tag every single incoming email, and then I just leave them be. If there’s something I need to attend to later the same day, I mark those un-read. If there are others that I want to get back to, but can’t do that same day, I put a star on them. By having the most important, most urgent email marked as *unread*, they show up at the bottom right corner, in the Firefox addon Gmail Manager. It’s a godsend.
    There they sit and gently work their *unread* charm in my peripheral vision, until I’ve worked up enough guilt to go ahead and just do it. Answer. Reply. Or somesuch.

  • http://guidingvision.com Sandra @ Guiding Vision

    Great post and comments. I guess I don’t get the reason for the additional step of using Things. I’ve been using Outlook for years and recently moved to Thunderbird but don’t like it much better. I think I’ll try Gmail and just use a combination of labels, the archive button and star items that need action.

  • http://guidingvision.com Sandra @ Guiding Vision

    Great post and comments. I guess I don’t get the reason for the additional step of using Things. I’ve been using Outlook for years and recently moved to Thunderbird but don’t like it much better. I think I’ll try Gmail and just use a combination of labels, the archive button and star items that need action.

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  • http://www.chriskinsman.com/ Chris

    I'm interested in finding out if your workflow has improved over the past year. I've been migrating away from email as much as possible and your article was an impetus for me to purchase Things and give it a try.

    I used Things for a few weeks and was loving it, but like you said, you have to focus on using it. After a while, e-mails would pour in and I would have to sort through every one to delete or archive. I began feeling overwhelmed with email, client requests and projects. I personally hate email now and would like to never have to use it again, but there is always the problem of clients requiring it.

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  • http://twitter.com/oghg Otto Gelderman

    I posted a similar post on my blog a while ago: doing something RAD with e-mail:
    http://gelderman.org/blog/2008/03/28/doing-some… with more links to inbox-zero articles.

  • http://twitter.com/oghg Otto Gelderman

    I posted a similar post on my blog a while ago: doing something RAD with e-mail:
    http://gelderman.org/blog/2008/03/28/doing-some… with more links to inbox-zero articles.

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    Family/Home – my first priority, of course.
    Commitments – these are things where someone’s awaiting a response or action for me that takes more than a few minutes.
    Projects – These are more regimented things, like when the boss asks you to build out a new experience at a conference.
    Speaking – I do lots of speaking, and I want to keep my commitments straight, and my details sorted.

    thnx a lot.