Buried in e-mail? This guide will help you to ditch the e-mail overwhelm and start hitting inbox zero – the state of having zero e-mails in your inbox – consistently.
While this guide uses Gmail as the base, you can apply a lot of the techniques to whichever mail platform you use. The features in Gmail are undeniable though, especially when you get into power usage, so it may be worth looking at for your setup, too.
Step #1 – Look at Your Existing Setup
The first thing you want to do is audit your existing setup.
Take a look at the tools you are currently using to manage your e-mail inbox. Whether it’s Gmail, Apple Mail or Outlook, all of the tactics in this guide can be used (with a few variations) to help you get a handle on your e-mail overwhelm.
My setup is pretty straightforward:
Gmail – my personal setup is that I access it through a web browser on my laptop and using the Gmail app on my mobile devices
Boomerang – I used to use Boomerang to schedule e-mails to go out later (for example, if you’re working late but don’t want folks to know you’re online, you can set your responses to go out the next morning) but Gmail has built in new “Schedule Send” features which are very useful and do the same thing
Unroll.me – this tool is great for unsubscribing from a lot of newsletters at once and/or “rolling up” your newsletters into a daily digest
Regardless of the tools you use, you will want to look for something that allows you to filter incoming e-mails and archive e-mails without deleting them (or having to over-sort them).
Step #2 – Sort What’s in Your Inbox Now
Cleaning up your existing account is going to be really, really vital to your future e-mail success. A lot of people look at their inbox and freeze up. There may be hundreds or thousands of e-mails in there that need your attention and getting through them is overwhelming, to say the least.
Fortunately, I have a really easy system to help you get through that initial clean-up phase and I do recommend that you devote some time to this. You likely won’t need more than an hour or two, even if your inbox is currently out of control.
Let’s get started, shall we?
The Archive Function in Gmail
If you’re using Gmail (or, if you switch after reading this guide), you’ll want to get to know about the “Archive” button. The archive button is a button that lets you move e-mails out of your inbox and into one giant folder that is incredibly search-friendly. Think Google but for your inbox.
I use my inbox sort of like a to-do system. What’s in there are e-mails that require my attention and couldn’t be processed using one of my methods below. If it’s done and doesn’t require my attention, I archive the e-mails so that they remain searchable but don’t distract me.
A lot of people use complicated folder management systems in e-mail clients like Outlook but they are often overkill and finding e-mail later on is next to impossible. If you can create a “bucket” for all of your processed e-mails, it’s far easier to find them later than if you put them into individual folders that aren’t searchable across the board.
To access your archive, you can use Gmail’s powerful search functionality and search for any keyword you are looking for. You can use similar search parameters to Google and add in multiple keywords to narrow down your search results. You can also access your complete archive, any time, by clicking “All Mail.”
If you have the tabbed version of Gmail’s inbox, you will likely have the three most commonly used tabs set up – Primary, Social and Promotions – by default. I prefer to turn those off as I find having to manage three micro-inboxes a bit tedious. Here’s where you do that:
If you are using the tabbed version and prefer to keep it that way, go through each of these tabs now and delete anything you don’t need. Trust me, you won’t miss those pesky newsletters and the other promotional e-mails! Get delete happy.
While you’re at it, unsubscribe to any newsletters that no longer serve your needs. If you don’t need it and you aren’t reading it, unsubscribe to save your inbox. You can also use a service like Unroll.me to help with the unsubscribe process – it’s super easy!
Bulk Organize with Filters
Whenever I first begin the clean-up process on a new inbox, I typically start by bulk organizing as many of the e-mails as possible. Gmail makes this really easy to do with the use of filters.
Let’s say you have a bunch of e-mail floating around your inbox and they are all from the same person / company. You can use a filter to quickly select all of the e-mails from a certain person or in a certain category.
Select an e-mail in your inbox to use as the basis of your filter – ie: if you wanted to filter all e-mails from Tom, you’d start by selecting one of Tom’s e-mails. Click on the “More” drop-down box and choose “Filter messages like these.”
Now, add in the filtering options you wish to sort your e-mail by.
For example, you may want to use the “From” box to filter all e-mails from a certain person or you could even use the “Subject” box if you want to group e-mails that all contain a specific subject.
In my own inbox clean-up, I will sort by people and then I’ll typically sort by familiar subject lines.
For example, all of the receipt notifications I receive from my shopping cart, when someone makes a purchase, all have the same subject line. By filtering all of those out at the same time, I can easily label them (see the section on that below) and then archive them out of my inbox so they don’t take up valuable, actionable space.
Once you’ve set your parameters, click “Create filter with this search.”
Now, you can choose what you want to do with those e-mails.
You can mark them as read, apply a label, delete it, etc. Plus, you can click the box next to “Also apply filter to matching conversations” to quickly and effortlessly perform a bulk action on all of the e-mail of that type.
Remember, any filters you create will be applied to all future e-mail as they arrive in your inbox so choose carefully.
If you want to create filters just for the clean-up process, that is okay, too! Set them up and run them and then, when you are all done and your inbox is clean, delete the filters. Keep any filters in place that you wish to auto-run whenever you receive new e-mail.
Review What’s Left
Now that you’ve archived, deleted and filtered your e-mail, you should be left with only the e-mails that need processing. For this, we’re going to move on to Step #3 – Processing Your Inbox.
This step can be used immediately after the initial clean-up to further reduce your e-mail and then it can be used as a daily / twice daily procedure on an on-going basis to help keep you at inbox zero.
Step #3 – Processing Your Inbox
Now that you’ve got your inbox cleaned up, it’s now time to put a daily processing system in place and process any remaining e-mails from your clean-up. Below, you’ll find some of the tips that have helped me to achieve inbox zero each day.
I’d encourage you to add what works to your own flow and of course, modify it to suit your needs. Leave a comment below if there’s anything you do on the processing side that others might find useful.
The 2-Minute or Less Rule
David Allen, author of the very popular book Getting Things Done, wrote a productivity rule in his book that I have never forgotten. His idea was simple: if you can do the to-do / e-mail / whatever it is in two minutes or less, do it right away without moving it to another system (ie: a to-do list) or leaving it sit idle without action.
I use this rule all the time for my e-mail inbox. As I’m reading through my e-mail, I will reply instantly to any e-mail that requires a two-minute or less reply. This does two really important things for me:
Creates momentum – when I’m getting smaller things done, I begin to feel that amazing feeling of accomplishment, which bleeds over into the other aspects of my day.
Clears out the easy clutter – getting rid of the e-mail that is easy to reply reduces any overwhelm that I might feel when I look at my e-mail inbox. This makes me feel less apt to avoid my e-mail altogether.
Go through your inbox a few times per day and reply to any e-mails that will take you two minutes or less to craft your response. Once done, archive it out of your inbox and don’t look back.
Move Your E-mail to To-Do Lists
Once you’ve cleared out all of the easy-to-reply-to e-mails, the next processing phase is to scan your e-mail and move whatever you can to a to-do list. I use Monday.com to track my to-dos but you can use whatever tool is the easiest for you and compliments your workflow.
In my own inbox, I receive a lot of e-mail from Monday, our company’s project management tool. Typically, these e-mails are simply a mirror of a message or a to-do that exists in Monday already. Getting the e-mail is simply a notification / alert that it’s inside of the tool and more often than not, they require action on my part.
When I receive e-mail like this, e-mail that is simply an action that exists in another tool, I don’t really need to keep the e-mail in my inbox. Instead, I can pop into Monday.com when I get an e-mail from the tool, add a due date and other pertinent details and archive the e-mail.
If you have similar e-mails that come in to your inbox, move them to to-dos as soon as they arrive (or, when you are processing your inbox) and archive them. I typically move everything that I possibly can from my inbox to a to-do system because your brain is not a storage system! You won’t remember every important thing you need to do unless it’s in a fantastic system.
You can also copy/paste the important parts or actionable parts of your e-mail to your preferred to-do list tool and archive the e-mail. So long as you’re disciplined enough to check your to-do list tool, the end state will be the same — you’ll just have far less e-mail to deal with on a regular basis.
If you have support and/or a team and they assist you with specific parts of your job, use the processing time to forward and delegate away anything that you can.
For example, our Community Manager and I have very specific areas of our marketing department that we handle. When requests come in that are more within her wheelhouse, I forward them to her and archive the e-mails immediately so that I don’t have to think about it (plus, it prevents you from becoming the bottleneck!)
Something else that may be helpful is to establish a “thank you is implied” rule with your team. I’ve let my team know that I won’t be filling up their inbox more than necessary and this means not replying to every message with a, “Thank you!” response. You could set the same parameters with your own team to cut down on the amount of e-mail everyone receives and instead, send little gratitude notes once per week or over instant message (Skype, Slack, etc.) instead.
Set Up a Good Morning and a Good Evening Routine
One of the keys to keeping your e-mail at bay is to set up a good morning and evening routine.
The very first thing I do when I sit down is I process e-mail. I don’t try to do any actionable to-dos or get things done, I simply process the inbox with the goal being to get as close to zero e-mail as possible. Once I’m done, I look at my to-do list and prioritize my first actionable item from there.
Before I log off my computer for the day, I do another scan through my e-mail to see if there was anything urgent or important that I need to action quickly. If there isn’t, I’ll move whatever I can off to my to-do list tools, prioritize them for the next day and close my e-mail.
Figure out a good routine for yourself and stick to it. It may take a few weeks or months but once you get into the flow of it, you won’t remember a time when you weren’t processing your inbox thoroughly twice per day.
Step #4 – Automation & Organization
Even though we’ve touched on filters in the previous step, I want to talk about other organization and automation tools in-depth and share with you some additional ideas for automating and organizing your inbox. The more you can put in place that happens automatically, the easier it will be to tame the inbox monster as you receive new e-mail.
Labels are an inbox zero’ers best friend. Labels allow you to easily organize your e-mail in a wide variety of ways and colour code them accordingly. This is really helpful if you want to batch your work and reply to all of the same types of e-mails at the same time.
For example, when I sit down to do work, I’ll respond to every e-mail that pertains to a specific area of my job and/or function. The labels allow me to easily do this and archiving away the e-mails makes me feel super productive at the same time!
Here are some of the labels I’ve set up. Remember, these aren’t folders! You don’t need to sort e-mail into each separate folder — you simply apply the label (and/or a rule to auto-apply the labels in future) and archive the e-mails when they are finished. I just find it helpful to have the visual when processing the inbox and getting through to-dos.
I like to use the labels to group together similar types of e-mails. Batching my work is something I do in all aspects of my job so that I’m more productive and it works wonders for e-mail, too. Instead of breaking up my workflow to respond to these e-mails one at a time, I can fire off all similar replies and be done with it.
Labels also help me to find things in the future. I receive a lot of incoming resumes and CVs but I don’t always have a need to hire. I label all of these with a “HR” label and then I almost always archive them away when I don’t have an immediate need. When/if I do, I can pull up all e-mail on the “Careers” label and sift through them as necessary.
You can also set labels to auto-apply to e-mail as they come in using the filters option I showed you earlier. This will help to further organize your inbox without you having to apply a label to each e-mail individually.
Boomerang and Gmail’s Schedule Send
Boomerang is an amazing tool that I recommend for every Gmail user. Boomerang allows you to send your replies out at a later date, which is perfect for those of us that are night owls OR when you are just trying to get out from underneath a lot of replies.
Gmail has also added in “Schedule Send” into their own UI now, which makes using this feature really simple. You’ll find it here:
If you’re anything like me, getting to inbox zero simply means reducing the number of active e-mails in your inbox. It doesn’t necessarily mean shooting off replies to people as fast as possible because quite often, that only creates MORE e-mail as the people receiving your responses start replying.
Part of why I use this tool is to delay the time in between my e-mail send and their e-mail reply but I also don’t like to set expectations for people that I will be around and working into the evening. This allows me to send all of my late night e-mail “tomorrow morning” and still get to inbox zero.
Step #5 – Lean on the Add-Ons
Now that you’re well on your way to achieving inbox zero on a regular basis, let’s flex your Gmail muscle a little bit here and add a few of the add-ons to your inbox to further enhance your experience.
You’ll find some of them in the G Suite Marketplace:
Other options will show up in the General Settings area of Gmail. Either way, have a look through all of the options that exist for you and turn on any that you think will add productivity — not more distractions.
Send + Archive Button
The send and archive button is a must-have, in my opinion. Send and archive works quite simply: instead of having to send an e-mail and then archiving it (by default this is a two-step process), it adds a Send and Archive button to your e-mails so you can do both in one fell swoop.
While this may not be applicable to everyone, some people will definitely find value in the Canned Responses option.
Canned responses allow you to write a response to a common e-mail once and append it easily to future e-mail replies. You might find this timesaving and useful if you are sending out the same reply often.
As you can see in the screenshot above, you can use pre-made templates to quickly structure a new e-mail and above those options, you’ll find the ability to save an e-mail you’ve composed as a template for future use.
You can also edit the e-mail once you add it into your reply so you can still tweak it so that it doesn’t sound like a stock answer.
Lastly, the Gmail Offline option is a great one to add if you ever find yourself on an airplane or somewhere else without Internet. Gmail Offline still allows you to access your e-mail, craft replies, etc. and it will send out your e-mails once you are reconnected to the Internet.
So, by now you should be a Gmail pro and you should be able to achieve inbox zero on a regular basis.
I’d LOVE to know what you thought about the process explained here and what tips were most helpful. Feel free to leave a comment and please, add any tips you have for achieving inbox zero.
Here’s to INBOX ZERO for all!