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How to Hit Inbox Zero

Advice for managing your email.

April 26, 2016

Anjali Gopal is a PhD Student in the joint UC Berkeley-UCSF Bioengineering program. You can follow her on Twitter at @anjali_gopal.




“Inbox Zero” is a popular term that recently started popping up in tech culture. It means getting to the stage where you have zero emails in your inbox. Literally.


Does that sound impossible?


Email can be one of the most stressful and time-consuming parts of your day if you don’t have a good system for handling it (sometimes, it can be stressful even if you do have a good system for it). Many how-to email articles will give you tips about how to organize your workflow around your email (check once a day, respond immediately, et cetera, et cetera). These articles can definitely help you make your email habits more manageable. However, I’ve found it more useful to figure out ways to make email handling less time-consuming. I’ll share the top four tricks I’ve found--and I also invite you to share yours.


1. Start Using Your Email as a To-Do List

In most inboxes, your mail can loiter forever. This means that every time you open your inbox, you’ll be confronted with an image like this:



Do you notice how you consciously have to squint your eyes a little so that you don’t get distracted by all the words that are vying for your attention? Or perhaps you’ve been desensitized to this already and just ignore everything that’s in there.


Both of these situations are terrible.


Contrast that, to this:

See how nice that feels? Notice how your cortisol levels are already coming down?


A few good rules of thumb in this case are to archive all email that you’ve dealt with, or immediately need to deal with. You might think you’d need to leave email hanging around in your inbox for a while but actually, there’s a solution for that too.


2. Use “Reminder” Tools


You’re trying to book a meeting with a colleague who has informed you that she’s travelling for the next month. How do you make sure you actually remember to send her an email when she returns?


In the past, I managed this with calendars, or letting an email sit in my inbox for a month. Fortunately, Gmail rolled out its Snooze feature in 2014. This allows you to archive an email temporarily until a few days (or weeks) later, when it shows up in your inbox again.


If you don’t use Gmail, FollowUpThen is an elegant third-party email manager that does the same thing. You can schedule email “followups” anywhere from a few hours to a year in advance, and it also allows recurrent scheduling of reminders if you need to be reminded of something once every week or month.

3. Use Promotion Managers


Most email clients are pretty good at catching unsolicited junk mail. However, there’s a gray area for emails and newsletters that you might have signed up for, but actually never read. These can surprisingly take up a large percentage of your daily received mail.


Gmail’s inbox (...you might notice that this is following a common theme) filters emails into a tab called “Promotions,” which blissfully hides them out-of-sight. You can move other emails into this filter as well, if you have even more newsletters you want tucked out of sight.


My favourite service for this is Unroll.me. Unroll.me takes all of my promotional emails and collapses them into a single “rollup”--which means I still have the option of having a quick summary of promos, should I ever want to look.


4. Don’t use complex labelling and categories

Some “how-to” articles for emails might encourage viciously sorting your email into folders, labels, or categories. The theory is that if you need to look for these emails at a later point in time, it should be easier because they’ve been pre-sorted. Right?


Actually, a study by IBM found that when it comes to looking for past emails, searching is slightly faster than looking through labels or folders. Sometime in my second year of college, I tried the create-specific-labels thing--and I found that it made me more averse to dealing with my email because now I had to spend tons of additional time sorting it into piles.


Instead, what you want to do is minimize the time spent handling email, and maximize the utility of it in the future. Since folders and labels don’t accomplish either, I use them sparingly.


What are some good tips you’ve found for managing your inbox?

[Image from Flickr User Kelly Schott, used under a Creative Commons License.]


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