On walkabout in life and technology

Inbox Kinda Zero

The idea behind Inbox Zero is to manage email overload. Basically, you aggressively process your email inbox by

  • Deleting everything you don’t need, want, care about, don’t care about, couldn’t be bothered with or is too old to act on.
  • Respond and file what you can process quickly.
  • Queue, by filing, emails that you need to get back to.
  • Schedule tasks and time to process the queue folder.

With Inbox Zero, if there is an email in the inbox, it needs to be processed away. The intention is to help you minimize the amount of time spent in email.

But several things bother me about this approach:

  • The process is aggressive, implying interrupting work to attack incoming emails.
  • The filing process is painfully hard and slow (drag and drop).
  • The queue mailbox starts to fill up, even after the processing task time is done, so in effect, not really inbox zero, it’s just “inbox out of sight”.

As with GTD, one should pick and choose what they want from the process, so here is mine, Inbox Kinda Zero:

  • Check email before and after performing work tasks. In my case, I’ll start the day and check email, then program for a few hours, then check it again, then eat lunch, then check again, then perform another task. You get the picture. The only time I interrupt a task to check email is if I’m expecting a response to a question that pertains to the current task.
  • Delete aggressively. Application notifications, newsletters, emails where I am on the CC list only, all get nuked instantly. If the first few lines of an email are not interesting, it gets deleted and I move on. On OS X, ⌘-DELETE is your friend.
  • Respond and File if possible. If I can respond to an email there and then, I do, then I hit a keyboard shortcut to file it (see below how to set this up). Get it done, get it gone.
  • Leave it in the Inbox if I need to get back to it. That’s right, I leave the email, marked as read, in my inbox (hence “kinda zero inbox”). In this model, emails sitting in the inbox are still begging for attention, act as reminders that I need to deal with them, and make it easy for me to see them on all my devices. And if the list gets too long, I know I need to schedule more time to process them.

Now I use Apple’s Mail.app for email with only my Reduced Inboxes available. I work in the combined inbox and hide all other account folders to remove distractions. This means I have a single stream of email to process.

The problem is that filing in Mail.app is really painful, especially when you want folders hidden. You need to show and expand the mailboxes on the sidebar, then drag and drop emails from the inbox to them. Message selection and the smallness of the drop targets make this process slow and error prone. There are menu options to help file to the last folder used, but that rarely happens. Slow filing is no good for productive email processing.

A few months ago, I purchased Mail Act-On, a Mail.app plugin that enables you to create keystrokes to file emails. This plugin has a lot of features, but I only really use one, the Act-On Rules. These allow you to create Mail.app rules that are triggered on selected emails using a keystroke. So, for example, I have a rule called Orders triggered by ⌃O (Control-O) which moves messages to an Orders folder. When I get an invoice for an electronic purchase in my inbox, I just hit ⌃O and the message is filed for me. One keystroke and I can move on to processing the next message. I have a set of these for each client project, for friends and family, and for bank messages.

With Mail Act-On, when I comes to processing emails, I can be pretty quick about it. ⌘-DELETE if its no good, ⌃K if its related to Kifu, ⌃O if its an order, ⌃F if its from a friend, etc.

And if the message is left in the inbox, it’s always there whenever I look, nagging me to do something about it.

See also Email Etiquette. Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter or @hiltmon on App.Net.