Inbox Zero-ish



About eight years ago, I discovered Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero series at 43 Folders. At the time, I had no system for handling email and a corporate job that generated a lot of email. There was too much email volume and I had no idea how to manage it all.

Inbox Zero completely changed the way that I manage email. I'm not a hardcore Inbox Zero or GTD* user, but I've incorporated much of the Inbox Zero philosophy into my workflow.

I find that designers are particularly bad at managing email. They don't want to spend time sorting and filing email when they can be sketching, coding or creating. For me, though, having a massive inbox hanging over my head completely stresses me out. A system for handling email helps me function better as both a creative director and a designer.

I've been talking with a bunch of folks lately about Inbox Zero. People with thousands of unread emails in their inbox. As we talked, I realized that I've never blogged about my personal email process.

First things first... If you haven't read Inbox Zero, go read it now. It's a series of blog posts written in 2006. I reread it recently and it's dated, mentioning apps that no longer exist. It was written before the release of the iPhone, too, so you'll see some references to Blackberry. (Remember those?) But even though the posts are old, the Inbox Zero philosophy is still as applicable as ever. (Especially pay attention to the section that tells you how to get from an thousands of messages to zero in a hurry.)

My list below is about my office email, which is Microsoft Exchange-based. My home email isn't handled as rigidly, although I may change that.

Here's my version:

  1. My inbox stays at between 25-50 messages. Sometimes it gets to zero. Sometimes it gets to 100. But it rarely gets over 100. (I'm talking here about total messages, not unread messages.)
  2. If it does get over 100 messages, I look to schedule some time to sort.
  3. I sort all my mail into a number of folders. The most important is "action required." I also have buckets for "future reference" and some specific project related folders. Set up a folder structure that makes sense for the type of email you get. These folders reside on the server so they still sync to my iPhone and iPad.
  4. If something ends up in "action required," it also ends up in Wunderlist. Wunderlist*** syncs a to do list between my home and office Macs, iPad and iPhone. That way, an "action required" item also ends up on my master to do list.
  5. As projects are completed, I check them off Wunderlist and trash the corresponding email.
  6. My "future reference" folder is where information goes that I don't need to act on, but may need to refer to later. The bonus is that it's easily searchable.
  7. My inbox is always at zero when I leave for vacation.
  8. I typically do most email work in the morning and late afternoon. I also do quick email sprints if I get a few minutes before a meeting.
  9. I find that I sort email really quickly on my iPhone or iPad. But I prefer typing longer responses on my Mac. So I use all my devices in managing my email.
  10. I don't allow for email notifications on my phone, except for those people that I've tagged as VIPs. No beeps or buzzes. No pop-up windows.
  11. I don’t subscribe to email newsletters or mailing lists that I don’t find absolutely critical.**

And that's it. It's not perfect. There are plenty of times that email gets away from me. (I get a lot of email.) But having a basic structure keeps me from drowning in electronic correspondence.

I'm always looking to adjust the system. I'm thinking about changing up my folder structure to better mirror the email I get. I'd love to find a way to automate copying a task from "action required" to Wunderlist.  (I know I can forward the email to Wunderlist, but I don't like the way it sets up the item on the to do list.) And I need to be more intentional about setting more rigid times for checking email and ignoring it the rest of the day. 

There are newer email clients that try to make it easier to manage email.**** And while I'm interested in trying some of them like Mailbox or Inbox, they primarily work with Gmail or IMAP. Since most of my email volume is in Outlook/Exchange, they don't work for me.

The hardest thing about Inbox Zero is finding balance and not obsessing about it. The sun will rise and the sun will set and you will get more email. 

Remember that Newton's Third Law applies to email, too. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you send a lot of messages, you get a lot of messages. It's really frustrating when you get caught up on email, send a bunch of responses, and within hours, you have a full inbox. Don't get discouraged, that's just the way things go sometimes.

Got any thoughts on my email process and how to improve it? Reach out to me on Twitter at @sketchbookb.

* GTD = Getting Things Done. It's a wonderful system for staying organized and... well... getting things done. I suppose I use some GTD tactics, but I'm hardly a GTD fanatic.

** I do subscribe to mailing lists on my personal accounts, but I’m starting to be ruthless. I do have an Unroll Me account that I use on my main personal account and it does a great job of keeping junk mail under control.

*** I really like Wunderlist, but it could be any to do list or project management app. I'm a little nervous about Microsoft's acquisition of Wunderlist, but maybe it will mean an easier connection between Outlook and Wunderlist.

**** The iOS version of Outlook is impressive, but it doesn't support VIP notifications. Notifications are either all on or all off. That's a deal breaker for me so I went back to using Apple's default Mail app on my phone.



Bob Wertz

Husband, Dad (x3), Creative Director at @UofSC, Type Designer, Teacher and Volunteer. Blogs at Sketchbook B and Wanted in Columbia.