Chris Alexander

On Engineering

#InboxZero: How Its Done

19th March, 2010

One thing I see appearing on Twitter a lot is people striving for #InboxZero - i.e. to have no e-mails unread in their Inbox.

Seeing as I get presumably considerably less e-mail than these other much more important people, I see that as having a completely clear Inbox. (I use my Inbox as a todo list - if it’s in there it needs dealing with.)

So here’s what I do to help get and stay at #InboxZero.

Have a process, keep to it. Always.

Here, the aim is to make it as easy as possible to deal with mail as it comes in.

As I mentioned, I have a strict process. Something comes in, it is examined to see where it fits. In almost every single case it won’t be so important that I have to deal with it straight away. Archive it if it doesn’t need dealing with at all, label it and keep it in the Inbox if you need to deal with it later, or get straight to it if it’s really that vital.

You’ll notice I’m using a lot of terms associated with Google Mail here - label, archive etc. - mostly because I use my Google Mail account the most, and my site and work accounts are all powered by Google Apps.

But it doesn’t matter who your mail is powered by or what process it is you use - find one that works for you and keep to it rigidly. If it needs changing, of course don’t hesitate to change it. But when you start making exceptions and special cases, that is when the system falls down.

Have access wherever you are

I’ve used this technique for quite a while now to make sure I am always on top of my Inbox.

I’ve always made sure my mobile and contract have permitted me to check my mail wherever I am, and the latest combo of Nexus One + T-Mobile mean I have unlimited 3G pretty much wherever I go, so push notifications for 3 accounts and checks every 5 minutes on the other (I’ve already blogged about how poor the University’s mail system is) mean I always know where I am.

It also means that if I get a few spare minutes while I’m out and about - waiting for someone, sitting on the train, or sneaking in a quick cuppa - I can be productive and get back to people where possible. Android’s superb Google Mail integration also means I can keep on top of labels, archives and full synchronisation with the main account wherever I am.

Prioritise efficiently

I mentioned this briefly earlier, but not only is categorisation and filtering key, but doing it efficiently is also crucial. I like to be somewhere without distractions, so that I can read each e-mail just once and decide what I want to do about it there and then. If I keep getting distracted, I may as well not bother dealing with e-mail and get back to it later when its quiet.

Find out immediately

This harks back to the mobile access, but if you find out immediately it gives you more time to deal with it. If something urgent comes up, you want to find out about it straight away. But there is a limit to this.

Being available quickly is one thing, but being available 24/7 will eventually mean you burn out and get sick of it. So make sure you have off-time too. I guess it depends on whether you do it for work or for personal use - I tend to have an emphasis on work mail during the day, and personal mail in the evenings, but this is just because for someone in my position, my personal e-mail is just as important as my work ones.

Find something that works for you

But if you take anything away from this, it is simply that whatever works for you is best. You may find it easier to take your e-mail in bulk and work through them, or you may be like me and nibble through them as they come in.

Whatever you decide to do, best of luck in the endless battle for #InboxZero.