How to Keep Your Email Inbox at Zero

I just saw a notice for the publication for a new book by Matthew Perman, What’s Best Next. I had never heard of Perman before, but evidently he’s writing along the same lines as David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, yet from a Christian perspective. So I look forward to checking out the book. Perman’s website has some really helpful articles, including one entitled, “How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero Everyday.” Perman’s post is thorough, and follows David Allen’s GTD system. I encourage you to read it and apply it to your email life as it best fits your circumstances.

Here is the way I seek to keep my Gmail inbox at zero – a simplified (and different) version of Perman’s post, and the way I apply GTD to my email inbox:

1. Unsubscribe from every email list that you don’t want or need to be on.

2. Of every email in my inbox, I ask myself these two questions, “What is it and where does it go?” (I’ve been doing it long enough now that I don’t have to consciously ask these questions, but I first I did, even out loud sometimes.) Asking what an email is means determining if an email is actionable or not – is there something I need to do because of this email that has landed in my inbox? Thus emails will fall into the following two categories:

  • Emails requiring no action
  • Emails requiring action

3. If the email requires no action right now, I can do one of three things:

  • I can delete it. If I find myself deleting it before I even read it, then it’s probably something I should unsubscribe from.
  • I can archive it for reference. Since Gmail has such a powerful search feature, I don’t need to file it away in a separate filing system. When I need to find it again, I can search for it by the words it contains. Example 1: Amazon’s emails telling you that something shipped (I want to keep it for reference just in case something doesn’t get to me). Example 2: Once a conversation has ended, I archive it.
  • There might be something in the email that I want to do someday, or need to do later. I keep these on my Someday/Maybe list, which I keep on OmniFocus (more on that below).

4. If the email requires action, I can do one of three things:

  • If the action can be or should be done by someone else, then I delegate it and track it on my Waiting For list.
  • If it can be done in less than 2 minutes, then I do what David Allen says to do – DO IT! This includes quick responses (there are more emails you can respond to in less than two minutes than you realize), websites to visit/read that can be viewed quickly, etc.
  • If it is going to take more than 2 minutes, then I pull out the action and track it on my Next Action lists. I keep these on OmniFocus – I either enter the action into my OmniFocus Inbox manually, or using OmniFocus’ Mail Drop feature I can now email myself the task into my OmniFocus Inbox for later processing (or forward the email itself to my OmniFocus Inbox). After I’ve pulled out the next action, I archive the email. If it’s an email that I need to respond to later, I still archive it, but since I have an action in OmniFocus reminding me to respond to the email, it’s easy to pull it back up in Gmail to respond when I can/need to. I try not to keep the email in my inbox as a reminder, (a) because then I wouldn’t have an empty inbox and (b) because it means I’ll waste time looking at the email and reminding myself what I need to do about it. (Perman says to create three folders, Answer, Read, and Hold, but to me that’s creating too many layers to keep up with – I just pull out the next action, put it into my GTD system, and archive the email.)

5. You’ll have to read Getting Things Done to learn more about next action lists and projects, but essentially I group my actions by context (Office, Home, Phone, Computer, Errands, etc., as well as the Waiting For and Someday/Maybe lists mentioned above), and I keep a Project list on OmniFocus to which I connect each action, so that I can keep track of all the projects I have going on (in David Allen’s definition, a project is anything with more than one step).

Obviously if you have a couple hundred or more emails, getting to zero means blocking out a good chunk of time at first. But once you’ve done it, like Perman says, to keep it empty you only need to check your email periodically throughout the day according to your volume of email, and then make time to do the things on your action lists. If anyone is interested in learning more about how to do this, feel free to email me and I’ll get back with you. I’ve often thought that it would be fun to be a GTD “consultant,” i.e., helping people work through their email inboxes one time like this to show them how easy, fun, freeing, rejuvenating, and productive it can be to live life with an email inbox that gets to zero every day or every couple days.




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