Inbox Zero? Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That

Rich in emailsI am rich beyond all decency, and I am here to tell you how you, too, can follow my path to abundance and extravagance.

I don’t mean money-rich; I mean email-rich.

I am an email thousandaire, the email version of Scrooge McDuck diving into a room filled with money.

“Why the over-indulgence?” the Inbox Zero types ask. “Do you not envy our pure, unsullied electronic mail receptacles?”

To which I reply: “Stop mailshaming!”

There’s nothing wrong with the size of my inbox, and I’ve got better things to do with my time than obsess over it. With a few little hacks, you, too, can keep the numbers more or less in check and get things done without stressing out over a number. A freakish, unnecessarily large number.

The systems approach: understanding why our inboxes are so full is the first step to dealing with it

We have a jillion brazilian gazillion emails for a reason. It’s probably not just that we haven’t gotten around to taking a few seconds to bulk-delete our inboxes. And I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s unlikely at best that we expect to ever respond to message #857 from July, 2013.
We hang on to these emails because they are information, which we hoard. So we need two things:

  1. An information storage system, with quick retrievability
  2. A process for assigning incoming emails so that they —or the information they contain— can be routed through the system so we don’t have to have this conversation again

Out of my face, and in its place

Now that we understand and accept our problem and know what generally to do about it, here are some tried-and-true tactics for making incoming email disappear without ending up like Lucy Ricardo receiving salvos of chocolates churned out by an ever-accelerating confectionery conveyor belt of doom.

Note: Many, but not all, of these are Gmail-centric solutions. I even use Gmail to manage my custom email domain. But if you’re not using Gmail already, I do not recommend that you switch, because that will take time, which you do not have.

1. Do not look behind you right now

Most of our inbox bloat lives in the past. Give up on it. Leave it behind. Our time is limited, so let’s concern ourselves with dealing with what’s staring us in the face: hundreds of new emails. They just keep coming and coming; and like with zombies, we don’t want to let them out of our sight.

2. The once-over

Some emails are actually important, so glance quickly (quickly! like lightning!) at all new email, and star/mark/whatever anything you need to deal with today. Then, either respond right away or put an item on the day’s to-do list immediately. Pro tip: when you respond to an email, it becomes your recipient’s problem, not yours. Done and done.

3. Sorting & tagging

The rest of the emails need to be sorted and tagged/filed/filtered, so we know that we can send them to the email dungeon and find them again if and when we need them. This well-known feature sets up the next action, which uses a less well-known Gmail feature. We cannot have too many folders/tags/etc., because the key thing (I tell myself. I’ll get to the truth in a minute) is to have a place ready and waiting to receive the incoming email so that we can archive it immediately. (Now the brutal truth: we don’t need half of this stuff, and can probably delete it. But having a place for it lets us make it disappear while avoiding any potential deletion hesitation.) Gmail lets you create filters that do this automatically.

4. Herding email cats

So we’ve got our email filing system, but we can’t nickel-and-dime the workday by archiving hundreds of incoming emails, one at a time. We need a way to group emails so that we can deal with as many as possible at once. This is where Gmail search operators come in.
A real-life example: I sign up for every single action alert on the planet. Part of my job is keeping up on what CRMs groups are using and how they’re using them, as well as how organizations are composing and structuring their advocacy emails, and what seems to work and what doesn’t. I want to receive as many advocacy emails as possible and save them for later reference. Creating a filter for each sender is possible, but tedious. Instead, I use Gmail search operators by typing something like “in:inbox ( | |” (without quotes). My actual search is a much, much longer string. I perform the search, and now I’m looking at all emails that fit those search criteria.

Here’s the trick: that specific search exists as a URL that can be bookmarked and clicked any time without me having to remember anything or copy & paste dozens of search terms. Now, I just need to click the bookmark and label and archive the results in bulk.

It works. After a weekend away from email, I disappeared 125 emails in a couple of minutes using my 22 bookmarked searches. Not too shabby.

5. Your new motto: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can put off until 11:15 am on Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Boomerang is a Chrome extension for Gmail that lets you archive your emails until they pop up at a specified time (basically, Boomerang automates the forwarding of the original to yourself). The free version gives you 10 I’ll-deal-with-it-laters per month.

6. Put that in your pipe(line) and smoke it (at an indeterminate point in the future)

Streak is a Chrome extension that creates a CRM system within Gmail with a customizable database-like interface. You can create a category—called a “pipeline”—for a specific project, and assign emails to the pipeline as they come in. You can then banish them to the archive knowing that you can access them, organized by project, client, topic, or whatever you want. It’s how I track client projects, prospective clients, vendors, and a range of other categories.

7. Find those missing links

I design and build websites, so occasionally I’ll want to save that link to CSS tips that I received from a design blog. Free font downloads? Gimme. I just open the links & save them to Pocket, then delete the emails. Super-handy shortcut: when in doubt, I use a “dump” tag in Pocket for random links I just can’t let go of but don’t want in my inbox & can’t be bothered to make a new tag for.

8. Okay, you can look behind you now

All of these tactics deal with incoming emails, but they can also be applied to the old junk. (I prefer to call it legacy bloat.) And here’s a mind-hack: treat each email not as a lone wolf, but as part of a pack. You might search for all emails from that particular sender, or deal with a certain topic. The point is to treat each instance of email excess as an opportunity to scrape together a pile to dump in the archive at the same time. You’ll find yourself making quicker progress, whether you’re on your way to Inbox Zero or Inbox 1000.


Joe Newlin
Joe Newlin is a Partner with Ocean & Mountain Communications, a Los Angeles-based consulting team dedicated to advancing social justice and progressive causes through strategic communications, media relations and digital media. Ocean & Mountain's clients are leading social change across the most transformational policy fronts in Los Angeles right now, including addressing the housing and homelessness crisis, improving public spaces, protecting civil rights and worker rights, and building racial and social equity. Prior to joining Ocean & Mountain, Joe founded to sharpen tools, messages and strategies for social justice leaders, organizers, communicators, thinkers, makers, and all-around doers.