Emptying your inbox

Until recently, I would regularly keep 20 or 30 emails in my inbox as reminders of things I needed to do. So there were 20 or 30 emails that I knew I needed to act on, yet I would need to think a little about each one to remember what it was I had to do.

Then I came across a few articles online that hailed the benefits of completely processing your inbox down to zero emails. One of my favorites was at zenhabits.net. At first I thought, “That’s not possible for me. I don’t know how I would capture all of the different action items that I have in these various emails, and I like having easy access to the email when I want to work on that task.” But another part of me said “well, let’s see if I can figure out a way to do it, and see if I like it.”

So I needed some way to capture all of these tasks, and some way to link to that email from that task listing. I use Gmail for my email, so I started using Google tasks to record the different tasks I had in my emails. Then I remembered that Google recently added a feature in Gmail called “Add to Tasks”. This allows users to take an email that they have open and send it to the task list, so that the user can see a task in their list that has a direct link to that email. So that was the solution for having easy access to the email for accomplishing the task.

One problem I had previously was that I would put items on my task list, and then forget about them, because I wouldn’t look at my task list often enough. And when I did look at my task list, it was such an overwhelming number of tasks that I probably subconsciously reduced how often I looked at it. This was another reason I kept a lot of task-emails in my inbox – so I wouldn’t forget about them as easily (though I usually still ignored them most of the time). Then I remembered that I can set a particular date for each task, and it will show up on my Gmail calendar. This way, I can look at a particular day or week or month and see when I want to accomplish tasks. So that removed another hurdle for getting those emails out of my inbox. You can do something similar in other email platforms as well, such as Microsoft Outlook and other online and off-line email systems.

After employing this new system and finally processing my emails down to ZERO, I experienced this incredible joyous feeling, like I had FINALLY finished some really long to-do list. In reality I had just moved the tasks to my task list, but I felt so much better having the tasks on that list than buried in 30 emails that were continually stuck in my inbox. No more looking at 30 emails every day and trying to figure out which ones I could get rid of and which ones I had to keep.

Having tasks directly laid out in an efficient fashion makes it so much easier to see what I need to do. And setting particular dates for those tasks makes it far less stressful, since I don’t have to mentally figure out when I need to do each task every time I look at my inbox. I think it is similar to a clean versus messy room: having a clean, well-organized room where everything has a place is far easier to live in than a chaotic messy room where you have to look for an hour to find anything and you’re always stepping over or around things to get through the room.

I also find that when I have an empty inbox, I am far less distracted by it when I occasionally check it throughout the day. I am currently working to reduce how often I check my inbox, but until I get better at that, it really helps to have it empty as much as possible.

I recommend that you completely process all emails in your inbox at least once per day, or twice per day if you can manage it, since that will reduce the number of emails you have to process at one time. One great way to process email quickly is to use keyboard shortcuts. If you use Gmail, there are a lot of great shortcuts you can enable that make things a lot faster. Once you go into your settings and enable them, if you ever forget what a keyboard command is, just remember this one: SHIFT-? That will bring up the keyboard shortcuts listing. See my article about maximizing keyboard usage for more tips on using keyboard shortcuts. And you can also set up rules in email clients like Gmail to automatically send certain emails to particular folders, trash them, etc. This is great for deal-of-the-day emails from places like Groupon or LivingSocial, as they are emails you still want and may occasionally look at, but not every day and you don’t need them clogging up your inbox.

Give this a try. I think you will enjoy being free of the continual nagging feeling you experience when you see tons of emails in your inbox, which you have to translate every time into action items. If you are anything like me, it will be a significant weight off your shoulders.

One comment on “Emptying your inbox
  1. corwinolson says:

    By the way, you can also use a lot of these techniques for reducing the number of tabs you have open on your browser.

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