The Comforts of Inbox Zero

( See part one from last week. )

There are interesting side effects to keeping an empty inbox that I hadn’t considered before I started this.

I now see just how much junk mail I get on a daily basis. How many sites have I bought something from in the last ten years without unchecking the box that says, “Tell me about your future special offers!”? It looks like all of them. I go to bed at night with no emails in my inbox, but wake up to 30 of them, 28 of which get easily deleted. When there’s two thousand emails in your inbox, you don’t notice the latest 20 or 30 mixed in that are pure junk. I’m starting now to go back and unsubscribe to some of those email lists, so I’ll have less clicking to do. You like to believe you’ll have a use for that store’s coupon someday, but then realize you have a year’s worth of those expired coupons already cluttering up your mailbox.

Speaking of which, I love keyboard shortcuts. If I couldn’t use the j and k keys to run up and down the list, while hitting the x key to check off an email, I’d go nuts. That much clicking with a mouse would lead to RSI in no time. If you use Gmail, do yourself a favor and learn a few of the keyboard shortcuts. I discussed some of them here a while back.

I trust search. I have to. All of those emails that I used to keep around just in case I needed them are now archived. Out of sight and out of mind. Except, inevitably, I think of one I need. Then, it’s easy enough to use the search bar to find it with a couple of key words or phrases. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s quick and useful. Best of all, it keeps my inbox clear.

I’m not quite as rigorous about this as Merlin Mann, who’s espoused only reading emails you have time to answer right away. Many times, the things I can’t perform an action on are because of my location (“context” in GTD parlance). I can deal with it at home, but can’t click on a link to a popular website blocked at work. But I think blocking out that time every night to run through the emails serves the same function.

I check my email less. I’m fine with letting it pile up now, because I know I can run through it quickly. Checking it every ten minutes doesn’t matter much to me. It’s a distraction, in fact. I have better things to do.

Also, I email less stuff to myself. I’m self-filtering more, not sending myself those things I’d like to get to if maybe I happen to have more time. I don’t want the clutter in my inbox or “__Answer” folder. That being said, I’m more likely to email myself things I know I can file neatly away somewhere. That might be a link to a story to discuss in next week’s column, a random quote of the day from my daughter to put up on Facebook later, or even a link to a web store sale I want to take advantage of later.

I’ve been at Inbox Zero for about a month now. My __Answer folder currently has six emails in it older than a day. Some of those are on hold until I hear back from someone or until I have the time to do the action they’re leading me to. That might not be until the weekend. That’s fine. I wish the mailbox would be completely empty, but I’m fine with a minor bit of clutter in there, since I review it every day and keep up with what’s going on. Nothing gets lost. That’s key.

So, Inbox Zero. I like it. And I didn’t need to see “January 1” on my calendar to start it. But if that’s what you need to spur you on to it, use it. Sometimes, the best tricks we can play are the ones we play on ourselves.

Inbox Zero

Last month, I took a few days and whittled my GMail inbox down to zero emails. Not zero unread emails. Zero emails, period. It has remained empty to this day.

Why: It’s distracting to have hundreds of emails in my inbox. I missed emails that scrolled off the front page. I forgot to answer some that didn’t need much of my time, but that I kept putting off and became easier to ignore. I started to feel badly about checking my email, knowing I had others down the list that I hadn’t properly dealt with. Why should I look at even more?

Even worse, I didn’t know what I was missing. I just had the feeling that I was missing something. That lack of control and knowledge is killer. I’ve been reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” recently, and while I haven’t adopted it as my productivity system, I picked up enough to know that using some of the ideas in the book to clear out my mental To Do list — which is what my inbox has become — would be a do-able and smart thing. Having an organized system where you know where everything is — even when you don’t know everything you have — frees up your mind. It removes those doubts. It lets you move ahead and do more stuff, instead of thinking about or worrying about past stuff.

Inbox Zero

(And, yes, it meant I had to read a ten year old book to finally come around to Merlin Mann’s famous “Inbox Zero” talk from five years ago. I watched it originally on a train ride into New York City a few years back. I need to give it a rewatch now to see what else I can glean from it.)

How: GMail has the archive function. (It’s the y key for my fellow Gmail keyboard fans.) I made judicious use of it. Too much of the email in my inbox was there because I didn’t want to delete it, but I didn’t know what to do with it yet. It was there just in case I needed it later.

“Fine,”” I said, “I’ll keep it. But I don’t need to always be looking at it.”

Off it went.

I created a folder named “__Answer”. Those underscores are there to make sure the folder name is on top of my list. (Yes, technically, this isn’t a folder, but a label. It’s used the same way. Gmail just tries to be cute about it.) In “Getting Things Done” terms, these are my action items. These are the emails I want to answer but don’t have immediate time to do so. In there goes all the emails I can’t look at at the moment. If they’re a link to a website or to a program I want to download, I put it in “__Answer” until I’m at home on my main computer and can perform those actions. Often, it’s an email where I click on the link, wait for that tab to open, and then delete the email. Two clicks and it’s done. It doesn’t pile up.

The big thing here is to not let the “__Answer” folder explode. It’s too easy to move things out of the inbox and let them sit in other folders. This is the folder where that might happen. So I dedicate the first 15 minutes of the night at home when I sit behind the computer to going through this folder. I click on all the links to see all the pages. I write responses to the more personal emails. I respond to the various PR people, whether it’s for or for Pipeline or this blog. I delete the emails that seemed important ten hours ago, but which by that point are obsolete or just not important enough to waste my time on.

It feels great. Things are always moving. Nothing stagnates. I don’t forget things. I get things done, so to speak.

Inbox Zero

I have more folders. “NextPipeline” is there for emails relating to the following week’s Pipeline column at CBR. Those might be responses to the previous week’s column. They might be links to quotable tweets. They might be links to blog posts or publisher pages of things I want to discuss. Sometimes, they’re little ideas I’ve written up to put in the next column. In those times on the weekend where I sit down in front of the computer and feel like I have nothing to say for Pipeline, this folder is a godsend.

The “VariousandSundry” label/folder is the blog version of “NextPipeline”. If I had more time, I’d use it more to generate more blog posts, but at least it’s the start of a sytem.

“Links” is a bin of emails linking to various blogs and other websites I want to read, but may not be time sensitive. I archive a lot of these. I have sub-folders here, too, specifically for things like “Programming” and “Tech” and “Comics” topics. They become searchable morgues, in effect.

I also have a “__Coupons” folder where I hide away the various deals I get sent from the membership cards I have. Next time I’m in the mall and need a quick dinner, I know where to look for that T.G.I.Fridays coupon now. No digging through things. Do I have some photos I want to print up? Check in this folder first for coupons to Shutterfly or CVS or AdoramaPix. And if I need to send flowers, I know where those FTD deals are. Need a book? The latest Barnes & Noble deal is in there. The big thing to remember here is to stop in one or twice a month to delete all the expired emails. Most of them are good for less than a week.

There are more folders for smaller categories. I have one for things related to my daughter’s school, for example. Those are archived there just in case, and labeled to be easier to find, rather than just archived. I have a folder for “CBR Reviews”, even if I’m not the editor there anymore. I’m still an occasional contributor, once or twice a month. Information shared there that might come in handy later is saved.

It’s only been a month, but it feels great. I’m generating more positive email and having more conversations. Things don’t drop off the page. I feel more productive. It’s a good thing.

Next time: The nice side effects of Inbox Zero.

Gmail Tip of the Year

If you’re using Gmail and not using the keyboard shortcuts that go along with it, then you’re not harnessing anywhere near the power of Gmail that you think you may be.

I’ve been using Gmail for years now, since when you needed a friend with an invite to get in. And even with that, it’s only in the last few months that I feel like I’ve finally put together the tips and tricks I’ve needed to be truly be fluent in Gmail. The key to that is to become keyboard capable. If you’re still point and clicking with your mouse in Gmail, then you’re not using nearly as much of the app’s power as you could be.

You can start with the bare basics: j/k bring you up and down, just as they do in so many UNIX programs, going back to the days of keyboards without arrow keys. x selects a conversation. Y archives it. c composes a new email.

Right there, you’ve just increased your efficiency and productivity with email 100x, if you were a sole mouse user before using this.

But here’s the biggest help that I didn’t even know about before hearing Merlin Mann mention it on the latest episode of Mac Power Users podcast:

**?** gives you a HUD with a list of all the shortcuts. It’s the greatest cheat sheet on the web. It is awesome.*

Look at that every day and start using a new keyboard shortcut. You’ll get to the stage where you use the awesome g / l combination much faster than I did. And that’s a quick shortcut that ramped up my efficiency by another exponential increase just this this year.

After that, we can talk about how to best use labels and archive mails and sort things and answer emails and all the rest. I don’t have all the answers to that, but I’ve definitely developed a system that I like and that makes email less of a chore on a daily basis for me. We’ll save that for another time. For now, that ? thing is a miracle helper.

If you want more stuff like this and you’re on a Mac, I can also recommend Cheat Sheet, a neat (free!) app that lets you hold down on the command key to have a screen pop up with a list of keyboard shortcuts for the current application you’re using. Nifty! It doesn’t work with all applications, but it hits enough to be useful.