Tired of drowning in e-mail? After many efforts and declarations of e-mail bankruptcy, I’ve finally found a system that lets me get my inbox to zero every single business day. It accommodates my desire to send and respond to e-mail throughout the day — I’ve never been able to stick to a “only hit receive if you have time to process” rule — and keeps my total incoming messages to about 20-30 (down from 200+). Most crucially, it allows me to respond to all key client and prospect inquiries within 24 hours.

The method

Like any productivity system, this is based on a set of decisions, assumptions and requirements for how you want to use your time. Here are the key decisions, assumptions and requirements for my system:

  1. Identify how much time have available to process e-mail on a daily basis
  2. Figure out how many emails you can respond to in this amount of time
  3. Using Gmail as your e-mail host, set up as many filters as you need to keep your inbox to a manageable volume
  4. Check your e-mail as often as you like, and process to zero once a day

The steps

It will take several additional posts for me to spell out all the tricks that let me process to zero, and maintain it. Here’s the big picture:

  1. Limit what comes in to your inbox. Your inbox should include only the messages you want to process ASAP — within 24 hours, or even more frequently. If you don’t need to see an e-mail within 24 hours, it shouldn’t hit your inbox.
  2. Define additional processing and reference labels/folders. Ideally this will include more than five or ten folders for regular processing, though it can include many more folders for filing and archiving. To figure out which folders to set up, ask yourself:
    1. What kinds of messages do you need to process, but not necessarily within 24 hours? How do you need to process them — by client? by project?
    2. What kinds of messages do you want to file and review when it’s convenient, or simply keep on file? These might be e-mail newsletters, web site registrations, receipts, etc. Create a label/folder for each one.
  3. Set up Gmail labels. Create a Gmail label for each processing mailbox you will require, and one for each review or reference mailbox. If you’re using IMAP, each label will be synced to your local email client as a folder.  In addition, create a mailbox for processed messages you need to follow up on; think of this as your “bring forward” file. You may want to number your mailboxes in priority order so the most important processing inboxes appear at the top of the list.  You can check out my workflow to see a list of the labels I’m using.
  4. Set up Gmail filters. Create as many Gmail filters as you need to catch any messages you don’t want in your inbox. For each kind of message you want to catch, set up a specific filter that applies a specific label to that kind of message, and tells it to “skip the inbox”. More details on Gmail filter power coming soon.
  5. Fine-tune Gmail to support an effective workflow.
    1. Enable IMAP. Unless you’re going to be using Gmail exclusively through your web browser, turn on IMAP in Gmail. This will keep Gmail in sync with whatever program you use to process your e-mail on your computer, phone or mobile device.
    2. Use Google Labs (under Settings in Gmail) to turn on advanced IMAP controls. This lets you disable syncing for Gmail’s All Mail folder, so you don’t clutter up your local mail client.
    3. Also under Google Labs, enable “send and archive”. This adds a button to Gmail so that when you’re responding to a message, you can send and archive at the same time, getting the message you’re responding to out of your inbox.
  6. Set up your local e-mail client. If you use mail.app (Apple’s e-mail client), use the Mailbox/Use this mailbox for…. menu item to make Gmail’s Inbox, Sent, Drafts and Trash folders the folders mail.app uses for those purposes. This dramatically declutters mail and keeps your sent messages and drafts in sync.
  7. Check your e-mail as often as you want. If you have a few minutes between meetings or you’re waiting for a crucial message, feel free to check your e-mail. Respond to any messages that catch your eye or you have time to handle; just don’t delete or archive anything you haven’t processed. For these frequent e-mail checks, use whatever client is most convenient: your local e-mail client (like mail.app), your mobile device, or (if you like it) Gmail via web browser.
  8. Process your inbox to zero once a day. At least once every business day, process your inbox to zero. When you’re doing this round of processing you’ll need to keep Gmail open in a browser window so you can refine your filters; if you’re using your browser to do your processing keep a second browser window open to your list of filters.  You’ll have three kinds of messages to address:
    1. Messages you need to respond to. Ideally you will respond to these as part of your processing. If there are dependencies that keep you from answering (for example, you’re missing a key piece of information) you can file these in a “FollowUp” label/folder, or send an interim message (“I’ll let you know the answer as soon as I hear”) and then file in FollowUp.
    2. Messages you need to read today. Read them, then file. When you’re doing this, consider if there is a filter that will streamline this process in future (for example, assigning a label to any read message pertaining to a specific project).
    3. Messages you don’t need to read today. Whenever a non-priority message reaches your inbox, refine or create a filter that will catch that kind of message next time.
  9. Process your other folders/labels as often as you can (ideally daily). Once every day or so (more often if you have time), look in your other processing folders/labels to read (or as needed, respond to) messages that didn’t hit your inbox. If you’ve numbered these in priority order, start with folder #1 and work downwards as you have time available. Don’t worry about processing to zero; you can let these boxes get cluttered up with relative impunity.
  10. Check “all mail” every day or two. Just in case your filters are catching stuff you want to see, take a quick peek at your “all mail” folder on a regular basis (if you’ve used advanced IMAP controls to turn off All Mail syncing, you’ll need to do this by logging into Gmail with your browser). Any unread messages will jump out at you (unless you have an assistant who is also checking your mail, in which case you should ask your assistant to bring messages to your attention as needed.) In most cases you can skim all mail in literally a minute or two, since you’ll only be opening the e-mails that look relevant. Again, refine your filters as needed to ensure that any accidentally buried messages make it in to a higher-priority processing box, or into your inbox.

The questions

But what if I receive more e-mails than I can process in a day? If you’re reading this blog post, I’m guessing you DO receive more messages than you can process in a day. If all (or most) of your messages hit your inbox, you’re going to be haphazard about which messages get same-day processing, and which messages get lost in the shuffle.

How do I decide which messages make it to my inbox? The key is to use filters so that your inbox contains the messages that are most crucial to answer in the time you have available. If you have more messages to process than you have time for, set up as many processing boxes (labels) as you need to handle all the messages you ultimately want to process. Then set up as many filters as you need to keep your inbox to the number you can process daily.

What if I miss something important? Chances are, you’re already missing some important messages. By filtering your inbox, you keep your attention focused on the messages you’ve defined as your top priority.

What if I already have a backlog? Your backlog of unread, unprocessed or processed-but-unfiled emails will actually help you figure out how to filter your mail, so don’t worry about purging first. . The good news is the configuration process will take care of most of your backlog, and you can clean up the rest by adding a one-time-only filter to file unprocessed messages older than X days. (Were you ever going to get to them anyhow?)

How much time does this take? Depending on your current daily volume of e-mail and the size of your backlog, it may take 8 hours or more to do the initial work of configuring Gmail and your mail client. Ideally, you will also dedicate an extra 10-30 minutes per day for e-mail processing for the next 4 weeks, since you will need to refine your filters to catch any non-priority messages that appear in your inbox after initial setup. The more conscientious and prompt you are about refining your filters, the faster your volume of inbox messages will diminish, and the less time you’ll need each day.

What if I miss a day? If your system is working, skipping a day or two shouldn’t overwhelm your inbox. Try and catch up as soon as you have a half-hour available; if you can’t process to zero, create an interim “catch up” folder/label, stick your unprocessed mail there, and start the next day with an empty inbox. Process your “catch up” messages the next time you’ve processed your inbox to zero and have a few extra minutes.

What happens to the accumulation in your other processing folders? This is definitely a work in progress, and the fast-accumulating clutter in my other processing folders is going to become an issue. My plan is to develop a set of filters that will processed read messages in these folders so that they get deleted or filed on a regular basis, or to simply move them all to a parallel set of archive folders on a monthly basis.