Day 6: Stop using your e-mail inbox as a post-it

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Welcome to 7 days to inbox zero, day 6. By now you should have cleared out at least 60% of your inbox — and accumulated a giant pile of messages in your three “systems needed” folders: “unsubscribe needed”, “filters needed” and “workflow needed”. You’ve had an introduction to Gmail filters as a tool for managing an unruly inbox, and hopefully you’ve started experimenting with filters that can catch less-than-unmissable e-mails. Today you’re going to plow through your “systems needed” folders, and set up the filters that will keep those emails out of your inbox for good.

Much of this involves creating systems that allow you to stop treating your inbox as a giant post-it note. You know the inbox-as-post-it problem: it’s when you leave stuff in your inbox after reading it, simply so that you don’t forget to respond to that message, or attend that meeting, or have that conversation with your colleague. It may seem like a smart idea: you look at your inbox every day, so leaving stuff there ensures you’ll see and remember it. Except that the inbox-as-post-it approach invariably leaves your inbox so full that you actually can’t count on seeing the stuff you’ve left there….let alone see and process the incoming messages that are now mixed in with all that reminder junk. In fact, you’re even less likely to deal with your incoming messages, because your inbox is such a drag to visit: it’s a nagging voice that shouts at you with the fifty things you’re trying not to forget, but haven’t placed in an actionable order. If you’ve got bring forward boxes, and a decent task management system, you won’t need to leave stuff in your inbox as a way of ensuring you don’t forget it.

But a good filtering system isn’t just about finding other places to file all your tasks, appointments and reminders. It’s about taking less on in the first place. After all, if your inbox is overflowing, it’s because you have less time available for e-mail than you have e-mail to process. All those messages represent tasks — even if it’s just the task of hitting “delete — that you have implicitly taken on, but can’t fulfill. And every time you look at your inbox, you get a reminder of the gap between what you’re trying to get done, and what you’re able to do. It’s a lousy feeling.

Instead, your inbox can be scaled to the amount of time and attention you want to devote to e-mail. But for that to work, you’ve got to get your mind around the idea of not seeing everything that you “should” see. Maybe you “should” keep up with five different e-mail lists in your field. Maybe you “should” read every message in those e-mail threads that get cced around the office to discuss whether the next retreat should run on a Monday-to-Tuesday or Thursday-to-Friday. Maybe you “should” know the second a task has been assigned to you by your project manager. But to read all those messages the moment they arrive — or to let them hit your inbox as if your intention is to read them immediately — is to forfeit any sense of control over where you commit your time and attention.

The filters you’ll set up today will reflect your priorities about what is most important to see and reply to in real time. And the more categorical you can be about what kinds of things can be set aside for you to view when you have time — the more e-mail you’re prepared to file in quasi-inboxes by writing rules and filters — the more time and attention you’ll have available for what you consciously and deliberately set as your priorities. It may feel uncomfortable at first, because we’re used to the tyranny of the inbox and the expectation that we’ll see whatever comes our way. But I encourage you to try filtering as much of your e-mail as possible…and then to spend the first few weeks of your system checking Gmail’s “All mail” box regularly, so that you can see anything that hasn’t made it into your inbox. That will help you see whether your new filters are excluding mail that should have hit your inbox, and to adjust your filters accordingly.

My next posts will walk you through the steps of creating your filters, covering:

  1. How to set up your Gmail labels
  2. How to process your “unsubscribe needed” folder
  3. How to process your “filters needed” folder and create your filters
  4. How to process your “workflow needed” folder
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