30 Days of Inbox Zero. How I Did it.
I get on the order of several hundred e-mails a day. For the past 40 days, I’ve hit #inboxzero every, single day with relatively minimal effort. I’d say on average I spend less than an hour a day tending to e-mail. As recently as two months ago I had thousands of unread e-mails in my inbox. As I write this, I have zero. Here’s how I did it.
- This widely circulated system for using G-mail from Andreas Klinger was the tipping point. It takes about 15 minutes to set up, and gives you a thoughtful, efficient system for plowing through your inbox. The system itself is great, but I found that just having a system at all made it a lot easier to dive in to a full inbox.
- I use Sanebox to automatically filter out lower priority e-mails. I find it’s easier to train, more transparent, and more accurate than G-mail’s built-in priority inbox algorithms.
- I use Unroll.me, plus eager manual unsubscribes, to remove myself from almost all newsletters, minus a handful I deeply care about. While filters are nice, the best solution is prevention.
- I use G-mail keyboard shortcuts to increase my efficiency while in G-mail. Learn them. They’re simple and extremely helpful.
- Lastly, I set up roughly 20 manual G-mail filters to triage frequent mail sources that I want records of, but never want in my inbox (e.g. certain reports, shipping confirmations for online shopping, etc.)
One more essential, but indirect tool has been the habit-forming psychology of “not breaking the chain” of reaching inbox zero. Once you hit a few days in a row, the loss aversion of not breaking the chain becomes a powerful motivator to keep going. About 30 days in I started using the iPhone app, Lift, which was designed for this exact purpose. (By the way, other active streaks that I owe to this approach include 22 days in a row of walking more than 10,000 steps, tracked on a FitBit, and 30 days in a row of writing in a gratitude journal).
The only downside of this journey has been, at times, I’ve become overly focused on hitting inbox zero, to the extent that it’s distracted from me from more important uses of my time. That said, I’m trying to institute three new practices to curb this:
- Only check e-mail twice per day
- Remove email from my phone (and iPad), completely
- Have a method for writing emails (on both my phone and computer) without checking them. I find that a common way I’m sucked into responding to emails is when I open up G-mail to compose a trivial one (e.g. “Are we still on for lunch tomorrow?”), but then I notice 5 e-mails sitting in my inbox, and before I know it 30 minutes have gone by. On my iPhone I’m using the app Draft and on my computer I’m using an Alfred Workflow.
So far, I’ve found it very hard to limit my e-mail checking to twice per day, but removing email from my phone has certainly helped. For urgent communication, I can still be reached by phone, SMS, or HipChat.
Tackling e-mail has been a hard, but rewarding challenge. It’s made me a better founder, a better manager, and even a better friend.
Please share your e-mail hacks with me in the discussion over on Hacker News or on Twitter - I’m @wxmn.
After you take back control of your inbox, you should use that newfound extra time to have fun and be more interesting by going on a Grouper :)