Inbox Zero; I Organized The Hell Out Of My Email And So Can You

New, unread messages? ZERO.
Publish date:
April 15, 2013
email, organization, getting organized, inbox zero, email phobia, checking email

I am currently using 67% of my 10.1 gig allotment on gmail. That means I have nearly 7 gig of accumulated emails.

These emails go back to 2008 -- I used to have email back to 2005 but I went on an ill-advised deleting spree sometimes in early 2009. I was so overwhelmed at the time, and even though I knew I'd regret deleting all that old correspondence, I couldn't handle having so much stuff in my inbox.

I've never been very good at sorting stuff into folders. And archiving just seemed like a waste of time -- Google has a pretty robust search feature but there are definitely things I've archived and never been able to find again. There's only so much good Google can do, after all, if you can't remember the specific phrasing your ex-boyfriend used to call you a whore when you went on a blind date after breaking up with him. Ahem. That's just an example.

My worst problem, though, was leaving things for later. An email would come in; I'd want to give it a meaningful, heartfelt response; and then it would get buried under the 150 other emails that came in over the course of the day. My inbox was a massive black hole, in which all communication was lost.

If you've ever emailed me and not heard back, I apologize about that. I had the best of intentions.

The problem with a massive inbox is that, for some of us, it can be intimidating. I'd open my email, and I'd leave it open. But the sheer number of emails that needed responding to was overwhelming. I'd bargain with myself that I'd spend 30 minutes when I got home answering and responding. But then I'd get home and other things would demand my attention. And then I'd feel suffocating guilt about the emails that I had left unanswered.

Time has a way of getting away from me -- I'll intend to leave something only for a day or two but then it'll have suddenly been 6 months.

But I've been working on not being a flake. And I knew that getting my email in order was going to be part of that. So I researched y'all's suggestions and kept coming back to the idea of Inbox Zero. While there were other links that were totally interesting, my problem wasn't reading the emails that I get so much as it was doing something with them. And there was so much of it that the little 20-30 minutes games weren't making any kind of dent. But Inbox Zero talked about a different way of approaching email.

If that already sounds like some new age philosophical bullshit, I apologize. Yes, I agree that it's totally ridic that we need some sort of Philosophy of Email or whatever. But we do. Even the NYTimes is covering it, y'all.

Inbox Zero is based on a couple of productivity flows -- 43 Folders and the principles of Getting Things Done. I'd read GTD (as devotees of its methods call it) several years ago but couldn't quite cast myself as the lean, mean, Six Sigma machine that it seemed to turn people into. I mean, I'm all for productivity but, well. I don't really have an excuse.

I just figured there had to be a happy medium between being that kind of corporate model citizen and where I was at the moment (buried under guilt and unanswered email). And Inbox Zero seems to be working as that middle ground, at least for me.

The first thing I did was search for notifications: Paypal, Ebay, LiveJournal, Twitter, Tumblr, Dreamwidth, iTunes, whatever. There was no good reason to hang on to my iTunes receipts from 2009. Do I really need proof that I paid a dollar for Flo Rida's "Right Round"? I THINK NOT.

Then, I used the filtering options on GMail to sort everything by date -- I tagged all my old mail by year and then by month so that I can go back through at a later date and delete crap that isn't worth saving. Or download photos or whatever.

Anything that was from this year, 2013, I figured was recent enough that it merited addressing. So I started there. A few things still slipped through the cracks but if it was older than a month, I kind of had to emotionally let go of it anyway.

That was part of the Inbox Zero strategy, too -- being brutally honest about what was going to get a response. A three-month old message was already so fraught with "If I reply now, they'll just be irritated with me" that the odds of me responding were pretty low. I was the only person who wasn't admitting that. And so I resolved to look forward and prevent the same situation from cropping up again.

I created a lot of other tags, too. That way I can easily scroll through messages if I feel the need to -- and I can easily delete old messages that aren't important once they are out of date. That's stuff like sale notifications from my favorite stores, for example.

Part two of getting my inbox under control was changing the way I dealt with incoming email. Unlike some folks, I'm not actually trying to get LESS email. Yes, there's a lot of it. But my methods for dealing with it were the real problem. That means I implemented a couple of policies once I had everything sorted and my inbox was totally empty.

First, there is the quick response. One of the big things Inbox Zero talks about is that the time we spend with an email -- our attention -- is currency. If someone sends you a really long email, you are not obligated to invest the same amount of time and energy in it. For me, I wanted to send long emails back -- but they were getting lost. So allowing myself to send a quick response meant I was at least responding. And that cleared up time and energy for the actually long emails that I needed to write for whatever reason.

Second, I use my inbox like a task list -- there is no "to respond" folder because I know myself and I know I'll never look at it. In order for an email to be tagged and archived, it has to be addressed in some way. And that "address" can be me deciding no response is necessary! This means I sometimes have a small handful of emails sitting in my inbox, waiting for me to look up information or make a decision. Because it's a short list, they aren't overwhelming, and I can tackle them in fairly short order when I get the info I need or whatever.

This took some getting used to. I spent about a week full of anticipatory terror; I checked my email frantically because I NEEDED to clean it out if anything new came in. This was, of course, both ridiculous and unsustainable. I'd just never had an empty inbox before and it felt kind of scary and new. Now that I have more confidence in my strategies, it's actually easier to go longer without checking my email because I know it won't be overwhelming when I get there.

But it seems to be working. It's been nearly a month and my inbox is still empty. Even better: I'm responding to all those emails that would have gotten lost. It feels like it shouldn't have been so simple, but once I found something that worked for me, it was actually super easy.

What do you think, xoJaners? How do you handle your email? Do you delete everything or save it all?