Inbox Taming for Busy People

inbox zero I’ve had my inbox at zero for over four weeks now ( Merlin Mann should be proud). I’ve learned that this helps my all around business processes, because to do this, I had to have a system to account for everything. The way I’ve managed it was a mix of David Allen’s Getting Things Done process, Stever Robbins’ You Are Not Your Inbox program, and simple figuring out what works and doesn’t work for me personally. I thought I’d share my process, in case it might be useful for you.

Basic Move: Have Three Addresses

I have three email addresses: one that I use for conducting general business, one for signing up for various web applications, and one for more important conversations. The first two, I don’t check all day long. I have a few scheduled dips in those boxes to see where things are, and to respond to inquiries. On one of those boxes, I used AwayFind to give people the sense that they can reach me if it’s urgent (so far, the only emails I get from the “urgent” form all say, “I just sent you email.” Grrrrrr!).

On the third email, that’s my business. And so I keep a little indicator light. I don’t read them immediately all the time and interrupt my flow, but I empty that box a few times a day.

Process Once I get Mail

I’ve noticed that I have a rapid flow. Here’s how it looks:

  • Information only mail – absorb and delete.
  • Information I need mail – copy a note into Evernote, which has web access and searching capabilities. Delete.
  • Requests for help – analyze and respond. Delete (or store if I need a record).
  • Mail from the boss – respond and store.
  • “Generic” mail – automate variations on a response, and customize the important bits. Delete. Note: you probably never get the generics. I reserve them for blind PR pitches, weird software companies, etc.
  • Scheduling and task request mail – right into Google Calendar. Tasks into a Google Docs spreadsheet. Web-accessible.
  • To-do mail that’s bigger and long – copy/paste the request into Evernote, store the email address, save the mail.

If You Have 1000 Old Mails in the Box

Go through them 100 or so at a time with the above process. Don’t read the new ones. Just try working through 100 here and there. Schedule time on an egg-timer to take a whack at them. (If you want lots more advice on this area, check out You Are Not Your Inbox, which I really loved.)

I’ve kept my box clean for over four weeks, even when I’m out at conferences and on the road. It’s astounding just how this all works once you practice.

What about you? Any ideas and advice?

These posts are made for sharing. Feel free to repost all or portions of this (as long as it’s not for profit). If you do post it, please make sure you kindly link back to [chrisbrogan.com] and give me credit. Thanks!

Note: I use Skitch to do screenshots. It’s cool.

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  • http://thefuturebuzz.com Adam Singer

    Congrats, Chris. Glad to hear you’re no longer drowning! ;)

  • http://thefuturebuzz.com Adam Singer

    Congrats, Chris. Glad to hear you’re no longer drowning! ;)

  • http://www.web2dotwhat.com Kelly Rusk

    Impressive!

    I like the idea of Evernote, but also fear I would forget about it and lose key information. Though maybe that’s my own organization problem???

    Either way, I’m inspired.

  • http://www.web2dotwhat.com Kelly Rusk

    Impressive!

    I like the idea of Evernote, but also fear I would forget about it and lose key information. Though maybe that’s my own organization problem???

    Either way, I’m inspired.

  • http://nlupus.tumblr.com Sasha Kovaliov

    Well done Chris!

    I keep one more email account to deal with all the financial things and stuff I buy over the net.

    However, there is also one more thing that you haven’t mentioned: overall distraction management. During you process, you might be disturbed by an important tweet/phone call/IM – so you can’t focus on the inbox only.

    I reserve 10-15 minutes per hour during my work day, to focus entirely on email. NO distractions while it lasts. This way I manage to kill all of them :)

  • http://nlupus.tumblr.com Sasha Kovaliov

    Well done Chris!

    I keep one more email account to deal with all the financial things and stuff I buy over the net.

    However, there is also one more thing that you haven’t mentioned: overall distraction management. During you process, you might be disturbed by an important tweet/phone call/IM – so you can’t focus on the inbox only.

    I reserve 10-15 minutes per hour during my work day, to focus entirely on email. NO distractions while it lasts. This way I manage to kill all of them :)

  • http://chrisbrogan.com chrisbrogan

    @Sasha- great point. Scheduling specific times or patterns to manage email is a great point.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com chrisbrogan

    @Sasha- great point. Scheduling specific times or patterns to manage email is a great point.

  • http://twitter.com/sarunasr Sarunas Rackauskas

    Chris, really inspiring and congrats. I mostly use Outlook but should look into Google apps you mention.

  • http://twitter.com/sarunasr Sarunas Rackauskas

    Chris, really inspiring and congrats. I mostly use Outlook but should look into Google apps you mention.

  • http://stuandrews.com Stu Andrews

    Chris,

    Do you manage the three emails out of the same Gmail account? You mentioned keeping that “that box” in reference to your business email, and was wondering.

  • http://stuandrews.com Stu Andrews

    Chris,

    Do you manage the three emails out of the same Gmail account? You mentioned keeping that “that box” in reference to your business email, and was wondering.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com chrisbrogan

    @Stu – Two are in one gmail app, and the business account is a standalone gmail app.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com chrisbrogan

    @Stu – Two are in one gmail app, and the business account is a standalone gmail app.

  • http://stuandrews.com Stu Andrews

    Thanks Chris for the info. Your post has given me some clarity as to my own Inbox. I manage a number of emails through a single Gmail account, mostly with the use of filters and labels .. but also just messy chaos.

    I have relied on the automatic (what gmail does for me) processes without updating my own innate processes, if that makes sense.

    Cheers!

  • http://stuandrews.com Stu Andrews

    Thanks Chris for the info. Your post has given me some clarity as to my own Inbox. I manage a number of emails through a single Gmail account, mostly with the use of filters and labels .. but also just messy chaos.

    I have relied on the automatic (what gmail does for me) processes without updating my own innate processes, if that makes sense.

    Cheers!

  • http://knowthenetwork.com Tsudohnimh

    I use a similar system. 3 gmail accounts as well, 1 for commercial use, 1 for online identity, and 1 for flesh and blood friends and family.

    I use the 3 folder system. Action, Hold, Archive.

    Action – Everytime you have a new mail message you decide whether you can respond in under 1 minute. If you can, then respond immediately. If you cannot then it is filed into the Action folder to be processed ASAP.

    Hold – If the email concerns an active situation but you are awaiting response or more information then file it into the Hold folder.

    Archive – If you need to keep it, file the message into Archive.(http://tinyurl.com/5j4efl)

    I enjoy the blog.

  • http://knowthenetwork.com Tsudohnimh

    I use a similar system. 3 gmail accounts as well, 1 for commercial use, 1 for online identity, and 1 for flesh and blood friends and family.

    I use the 3 folder system. Action, Hold, Archive.

    Action – Everytime you have a new mail message you decide whether you can respond in under 1 minute. If you can, then respond immediately. If you cannot then it is filed into the Action folder to be processed ASAP.

    Hold – If the email concerns an active situation but you are awaiting response or more information then file it into the Hold folder.

    Archive – If you need to keep it, file the message into Archive.(http://tinyurl.com/5j4efl)

    I enjoy the blog.

  • Sean

    I have similar processes, but only 2 email addresses in order to keep private email completely seperate from work email.

    I use gmail for private email, and check that once an hour. I filter mailing lists into folders to read another time so I can focus on email from friends.

    I filter work email into 3 categories:
    1: Email sent only to me. Since these people are looking for a direct reply I deal with these first
    2: Email sent not just to me: These are mostly conversational, so I can let the conversation continue until I get a chance.
    3: Email CC’d to me. I take a risk that most of these are for info, so these come last on the list.

    I’ve recently cleaned up my personal inbox, and have been keeping up with it, but my work inbox is a whole different story…

  • Sean

    I have similar processes, but only 2 email addresses in order to keep private email completely seperate from work email.

    I use gmail for private email, and check that once an hour. I filter mailing lists into folders to read another time so I can focus on email from friends.

    I filter work email into 3 categories:
    1: Email sent only to me. Since these people are looking for a direct reply I deal with these first
    2: Email sent not just to me: These are mostly conversational, so I can let the conversation continue until I get a chance.
    3: Email CC’d to me. I take a risk that most of these are for info, so these come last on the list.

    I’ve recently cleaned up my personal inbox, and have been keeping up with it, but my work inbox is a whole different story…

  • http://georgemotoc.wordpress.com George Motoc

    All of the above are words of the wise, but should be equally applied to the Sent box. I found that Inbox’s little brother can be very useful in various office-related arguments (“You didn’t copy me on that email! Really? Let’s have a look in my Sent box…”)
    Cheers!

  • http://georgemotoc.wordpress.com George Motoc

    All of the above are words of the wise, but should be equally applied to the Sent box. I found that Inbox’s little brother can be very useful in various office-related arguments (“You didn’t copy me on that email! Really? Let’s have a look in my Sent box…”)
    Cheers!

  • http://www.technotheory.com Jared Goralnick

    Chris,

    Great job getting your messages down! Not only have you done an amazing job sorting/organizing…but you’ve more importantly managed to do while still respecting your contacts and responding to people in a timely manner. That’s a heck of an accomplishment.

    I’ve been trying out a lot of the advice in Stever’s audiobook as well–as someone who prides themselves on all sorts of inbox-shaving techniques, I’ll echo that he has some advice I hadn’t even considered, especially regarding categorizing messaging before processing them.

    As for AwayFind, later today we’re releasing videos and a bunch of new default text that tells people explicitly how to screen out “did you get my email” messages. I’ll send you a note personally when the videos are up and with some text that should get across your goal.

    Looking forward to your how-to articles that are coming soon…congrats on finishing the social media 100!

  • http://www.technotheory.com Jared Goralnick

    Chris,

    Great job getting your messages down! Not only have you done an amazing job sorting/organizing…but you’ve more importantly managed to do while still respecting your contacts and responding to people in a timely manner. That’s a heck of an accomplishment.

    I’ve been trying out a lot of the advice in Stever’s audiobook as well–as someone who prides themselves on all sorts of inbox-shaving techniques, I’ll echo that he has some advice I hadn’t even considered, especially regarding categorizing messaging before processing them.

    As for AwayFind, later today we’re releasing videos and a bunch of new default text that tells people explicitly how to screen out “did you get my email” messages. I’ll send you a note personally when the videos are up and with some text that should get across your goal.

    Looking forward to your how-to articles that are coming soon…congrats on finishing the social media 100!

  • http://www.thetransitioner.org Fernanda Ibarra

    I am wondering what you do to network with the people you meet who rely on their email as main or only channel of connection. I currently travel a lot and meet people in the context of our organization seminars. I want to keep relating with this people in ways that go beyond the superficial social communications to inspire them to move forward and follow the ripples created in the seminars. Should I begin to inspire them to go into socialnetworks and socialmedia tools? I guess I do. Comments?

  • http://www.thetransitioner.org Fernanda Ibarra

    I am wondering what you do to network with the people you meet who rely on their email as main or only channel of connection. I currently travel a lot and meet people in the context of our organization seminars. I want to keep relating with this people in ways that go beyond the superficial social communications to inspire them to move forward and follow the ripples created in the seminars. Should I begin to inspire them to go into socialnetworks and socialmedia tools? I guess I do. Comments?

  • http://www.ribeezie.com/ribeezie/2008/08/inbox-taming-fo.html [...Inbox Taming for Busy Peop

    … if you ask me, Chris’ system is a good system. But do what works for you. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, well, here’s what Chris recommends … ]

  • http://www.ribeezie.com/ribeezie/2008/08/inbox-taming-fo.html [...Inbox Taming for Busy People - by Chris Brogan... ]]

    … if you ask me, Chris’ system is a good system. But do what works for you. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, well, here’s what Chris recommends … ]

  • http://www.thebloggess.com Jenny, Bloggess

    I have over 1000 unread messages in my email right now. I need to go through them all but I think it would be easier to just crash the server or set fire to my computer.

  • http://www.thebloggess.com Jenny, Bloggess

    I have over 1000 unread messages in my email right now. I need to go through them all but I think it would be easier to just crash the server or set fire to my computer.

  • http://www.rowanprice.com rowanprice

    I have felt so liberated ever since I *stopped* using email as: a to-do list, an address book, a scrap-book, a calendar, and a login & project info storage system. There are better tools for all those things. So: no tags, no folders, no categories… all I need is an Inbox and, my personal favorite, Trash. Yes, I drank the ‘Bit Literacy’ cool-aid, and have never looked back!

  • http://twitter.com/roprice Ro

    I have felt so liberated ever since I *stopped* using email as: a to-do list, an address book, a scrap-book, a calendar, and a login & project info storage system. There are better tools for all those things. So: no tags, no folders, no categories… all I need is an Inbox and, my personal favorite, Trash. Yes, I drank the ‘Bit Literacy’ cool-aid, and have never looked back!

  • http://customersrock.net Becky Carroll

    Chris, congrats on taming the email beast! Quick question from a fellow Gmail user: where are you “storing” the messages you are keeping? I have always used Gmail as my storage, as there are tags and great search capabilities. Sounds like you are doing something different in order to keep the inbox to a zero…

  • http://customersrock.net Becky Carroll

    Chris, congrats on taming the email beast! Quick question from a fellow Gmail user: where are you “storing” the messages you are keeping? I have always used Gmail as my storage, as there are tags and great search capabilities. Sounds like you are doing something different in order to keep the inbox to a zero…

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisdn Christian DE NEEF

    It’s quite interesting; I know other people that apply similar, disciplined processes to keep their inboxes empty, moving mail to folders, Evernote or OneNote, or just getting rid of them. I do quite the contrary: I make sure I READ my mail during the day (every day, it doesn’t take that long), only delete what is spam or redundant, I NEVER store or archive mail and keep everything in my Outlook in & outboxes. I only copy things to Evernote or OneNote that I need to research/require more time, as a To Do list. I FIND everything with Google Desktop Enterprise edition. It is the antithesis of the empty mailbox: I have currently > 22 000 mails in outlook! And yes, it works very well for me…

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisdn Christian DE NEEF

    It’s quite interesting; I know other people that apply similar, disciplined processes to keep their inboxes empty, moving mail to folders, Evernote or OneNote, or just getting rid of them. I do quite the contrary: I make sure I READ my mail during the day (every day, it doesn’t take that long), only delete what is spam or redundant, I NEVER store or archive mail and keep everything in my Outlook in & outboxes. I only copy things to Evernote or OneNote that I need to research/require more time, as a To Do list. I FIND everything with Google Desktop Enterprise edition. It is the antithesis of the empty mailbox: I have currently > 22 000 mails in outlook! And yes, it works very well for me…

  • http://levite.wordpress.com jon

    I went from 7500 to 5700 messages in my inbox yesterday, using gmail labels and filters. down to a 1000 so I can then go to 0? Maybe. Someday.

    But I like the challenge.

  • http://levite.wordpress.com jon

    I went from 7500 to 5700 messages in my inbox yesterday, using gmail labels and filters. down to a 1000 so I can then go to 0? Maybe. Someday.

    But I like the challenge.

  • http://www.thereluctantgenius.com/ tracy mazuer

    I was so excited to see Evernote, but, alas, I’m not on Leopard! I’m stuck with some other fast animal, Panther? Regardless, does anyone have a suggestion for something similar to Evernote that will work with my antiquated OS?

  • http://www.thereluctantgenius.com/ tracy mazuer

    I was so excited to see Evernote, but, alas, I’m not on Leopard! I’m stuck with some other fast animal, Panther? Regardless, does anyone have a suggestion for something similar to Evernote that will work with my antiquated OS?

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  • Anonymous

    Chris, great post. It just so happened I had posted on my blog last night something relevant to this so I linked your blog to mine.

    It is easy to get into overload mode and forget what we are really supposed to be doing.

    Thanks Chris — enjoy listening to you over Twitter also.

  • http://www.ofcourseyoucansucceedonline.com/focus-what-with-this-mess/ Jill

    Chris, great post. It just so happened I had posted on my blog last night something relevant to this so I linked your blog to mine.

    It is easy to get into overload mode and forget what we are really supposed to be doing.

    Thanks Chris — enjoy listening to you over Twitter also.

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  • http://desmedtstudio.wordpress.com/ Guillaume

    Why delete e-mails?

    with gmail you able to save 7Gig of info! I agree with two different e-mail accounts… one personal and one for all the sites one has to “Sign-up” for (Which is REALLY irritating!)

    But… I just sort my mail using labels, and the new awesome stars, and I am able to recall any e-mail i received or sent since i opened my account. I found this useful when the other day i accidentally deleted all my contacts… going through my e-mails I found an e-mail i sent to all… and used it to recover my contacts!

    then again… i don’t receive 100 e-mails a day! But i like the good advise!

    Thanks Chris!

  • http://desmedtstudio.wordpress.com/ Guillaume

    Why delete e-mails?

    with gmail you able to save 7Gig of info! I agree with two different e-mail accounts… one personal and one for all the sites one has to “Sign-up” for (Which is REALLY irritating!)

    But… I just sort my mail using labels, and the new awesome stars, and I am able to recall any e-mail i received or sent since i opened my account. I found this useful when the other day i accidentally deleted all my contacts… going through my e-mails I found an e-mail i sent to all… and used it to recover my contacts!

    then again… i don’t receive 100 e-mails a day! But i like the good advise!

    Thanks Chris!

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  • http://www.thetylerhayes.com Tyler Hayes

    I would recommend checking out Mark Hurst’s book Bit Literacy on this same topic as well.

  • http://www.thetylerhayes.com Tyler Hayes

    I would recommend checking out Mark Hurst’s book Bit Literacy on this same topic as well.