My Empty Inbox

This evening I ran across yet another person trying to do the "keep your inbox empty" thing, and one who thinks the task is somewhere between difficult and impractical.

I have two inboxes: Gmail for personal, Outlook for work.  They're both always empty, and I don't find it difficult at all.  As email comes in I reply if needed, and then immediately archive.  If it needs following up later, I'll  add a notification to my calendar to make sure I revisit it, ideally with all relevant bits in the calendar event so I needn't go find the email again.  This seems to work very well, and isn't intrusive to my schedule.

I want to hear your stories of pain with non-empty inboxes.  What makes it difficult?  Is there something your email client could do better to help out?  Is it fundamentally a time management problem expressed in the form of an inbox, or is it something inherently email-specific?  Do you have the same problem with voicemail and/or text messages?

15 responses to “My Empty Inbox”

  1. tfitch

    My problem is the volume of my lists. I never have/take the time to read my CF-talk emails and some other list serves. But if the email is directly to me I do read those. So it's tricky. My direct messages are at zero. But my unread messages are at 2500+. What would you call that?

  2. Rachel Lehman

    To me it seems like an overflowing inbox is a symptom of using your email as your to-do list, rather than a communication tool. That, and some companies send entirely too much email :) But I agree, if you proactively manage it, it's not hard to have an empty inbox. Now an empty to-do list…that's a completely different story :)

  3. Tom Mollerus

    I think that one motivation which keeps people from cleaning their inboxes is the idea that if they move something out of the inbox, they will forget about it, or otherwise not act upon something they should have. So I think that what you do that most people don't is to make the calendar/task entry you mention.

    I do agree that having an empty inbox is an admirable goal, and one that I've only managed after moving to a new job. I clean it at the end of every week, and just use the search function if I need to find an email again.

  4. Matt Osbun

    I don't keep an empty inbox, and have long given up trying. It's not a matter of too difficult or time-consuming, it's that I don't see a need to. I've never found a cluttered inbox to be all that much of a problem.

    At work, I'll move email threads to project-specific folders, but that's mostly so I can find them again. If the email isn't regarding a project that I'm working, I'm okay with leaving it in the inbox and letting the auto-archiver deal with it.

    With personal email, I use Gmail. Between labels and stars, I never have a problem finding what I need. Since I can always find what I need with a mouse click or two, or at most a search box, I don't see any reason to further organize from there.

    Voicemail is different. That gets deleted immediately. If it's something I need to remember or deal with, it gets turned into a calendar item or task on my Blackberry. But that's because voicemail is inconvenient to go back and check. Much easier to look up a calendar appointment or a task on my phone than to call my voicemail, listen to and react to each one in turn while trying to find the one I want. The BB has search capabilities and more than a few ways of notifying me when something important comes up. That's just a matter of usefulness.

    I don't get enough text messages to worry about it. Most people who know me, and therefore know my phone number, know that I'm readily available through phone, IM, email, and text and will generally pick one of the first three. As a general rule, I don't give out my phone number to websites/businesses for purposes of receiving text messages- been burned too many times by businesses saying that they won't misuse my phone number, and then putting me on their SMS and phone marketing lists.

  5. Ben Nadel

    I use my inbox as a sort of to-do list. So, when I have idea of things I want to do or things I want to blog about, I email myself the idea. Right now, I have about 50 personal emails, half of which are from ME.

    So, I suppose the pain that I feel is simply not having enough time to do all the things I think about.

  6. Peter Bell

    I Usually have 10-30 items in my inbox (more like 400-500 if I haven't checked my email for a day). I use them as an additional reminder of tasks that I need to do in the next couple of days but that should not be undertaken now. I *do* put those tasks into textmate as well (I use a simple text doc for my to do's), but I find that often new priorities will keep pushing older ones out (I add them higher in the text document) and having a bit of a "nag" in the inbox reminding me of some of the important but not urgent items works well for me.

    I understand that I could get something similar using Things or another to do tool with delivery dates, but I find that priorities change so often due to changing client priorities, the time to keep on updating the delivery dates for 40-50 small tasks simply isn't worth it.

    In short, I find a few items in my email inbox another useful reminder of certain key tasks in the same way you might stick a note on the fridge to remind you to do something.

  7. Kevin Hoyt

    I'm a stickler for an empty inbox. I apply a GTD approach. Do it – respond to the email if I can within a limited amount of time (2 – 5 mins). Defer it – put it on the calendar with details in the event. Delegate it – forward to the message to somebody that can help, and put a reminder on the the calendar to follow up and make sure it got taken care of. Drop it – delete the message if I'm done with it.

    The rest of GTD used to be pretty messy, but a lot of applications have emerged to round out its application. I don't generally use GTD-specific tools, but rather others that fit my workflow. If they are open source or have an API, that's even better so I can really work them into how I think. Remember the Milk is my to-do list, and Evernote is my filing system. I use FreeMind for mind mapping, but I'm not as attached to it as the other two.

    Curiously enough, my Gmail is a train wreck. I don't use it that often, and when I do, I've found that the search is so high quality, and fast, that I get what I need with little effort. Generally speaking, I think the concept of tags has really made life easier across all products that use them (versus categories).

  8. tfitch

    Yeah man. All my personal email and list serves are pulled in to my gmail account and I have labels setup for everything so it's pretty clear what's what.

    I haven't used the mute feature but I'll try it on some threads going forward and I'll probably be a happy camper. Thanks dude.

  9. koen

    My inboxes are always empty. I also tend to take care of things right away. Sometimes I hold on to one or two messages for a minute but then it just starts bugging me that there are these left over things in my inbox that I have to think about every time I see them and so I do something about them ASAP.

  10. mike

    I used to think that staying on top of your email was easy. 10 emails in my inbox and I was out of control. Zero emails at the end of the day was the norm. Then I moved to my current employer. The norm is now to have 300-400 emails in my inbox; probably a third of these are unread and many never will be read. The only way that I keep it down to 300 or so is to rigorously delete everything that is over three months old.

    I haven't changed. My home email is still under control. So, it must be something to do with the corporate style. I just get a lot of email that appears to require no immediate action, but will get referenced in a conversation, meeting or report over the coming weeks. The flip-side is that keeping a clear desk has never been easier. The only paper is the stuff that I produce for myself and most goes into the confidential waste within hours of printing.

  11. Mike Henke

    I read Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide…. Lots of good tips like what you are talking about with the clean inbox. Great read and its a book you skim through and skip the tips that don't pertain to you and read the gems that do.

  12. Michael Evangelista

    Check out 'Getting Things Done', and then their 'Outlook GTD' pdf… these really set me in motion towards inbox bliss. Using outlook, i have 15 or so task categories. I can click on any email message and categorize it, as well as adding a follow up date (just clicking the red flag adds the current date). I have a sidebar with a 'client to do' folder, and a special view in my Tasks window that shows the current day's tasks, by category.

    When i get an email i either answer it right away or right click, add category 'email', 'calls', 'work updates', 'work projects', or whatever, and then one more click to set the date, and quickly drag it to the 'to do' folder. Really fast and efficient.

    Combined with outlook message rules, of which i have many to automatically add flags, categories, and most importantly put copies of messages into specified folders, it would take more effort to let things pile up in my inbox than it does to keep things totally streamlined.

    Also, any email message put in a category gets added to the 'tasks' that sync to my blackberry.
    Round trip on-top-of-it-at-last-ness.

  13. Rob Wilkerson

    I could not agree more. I keep both of my inboxes clear save one or two emails that I want to keep on my radar. Moreover, it actually drives _me_ crazy to sit near a colleague that has hundreds of folders for organization with unread messages in all of them. I would find that so incredibly distracting that I think I'd just shut down.

  14. Sean Corfield

    I use Apple Mail's Smart Mailboxes to manage personal and work email:
    Organize (all unread email), Review (received in last seven days and Flagged), Flagged (more than a week old and Flagged). Think of it as "Today", "Next" and "Someday".

    As email comes in, I either a) delete it b) reply to it (if I can do it in 2-5 mins, like Kevin Hoyt said) c) file it (if it's useful reference material) d) flag it for follow-up. I only check mail when I take a break in other projects. Most email that gets to the Flagged mailbox either gets deleted or added to Things as a todo. Once or twice a day I check Review and either reply or move to Things. Every few days I check Flagged and either reply, delete or move to Things.

    Once you develop a bit of discipline about not spending much time on emails, it becomes easy.

    I use Gmail as a repository for mailing lists and mostly just Mark As Read unless a subject line looks interesting. Later I can search Gmail for useful information. I don't have mailing lists coming to Apple Mail. I tend to check Gmail once every few days.