Maintaining “Inbox Zero” with Google Apps

I’m proud to say that I successfully live inbox zero, never letting email pile up in my inboxes.

If I have more than 30 unread messages at any one time, I break into a cold sweat. So as a result, until recently I couldn’t imagine maintaining my maniacal level of control over my inboxes without a desktop email client’s notifications, rules & plug-ins.

Thanks to Google Apps and some simple tricks & tips that are only possible with Gmail in the browser, I’m master of my domain (email, that is) in my browser window. I have never felt more organized with my email across four different accounts.

Think it’s just an impossible dream? Here’s an inside look at “inbox zero” in action.

I don’t follow “Getting Things Done” to the letter. But there’s one tenant I hold close to my heart: only touch an email once. Read it, decide what to do with it, archive it or delete it. Get it out of the inbox as fast as you can. Don’t walk away from your inbox with a read message in the inbox. A mixture of read/unread email in your inbox doesn’t work well. You end up reading the same read message 3 or 4 times just to remember what needs to be done. Tip if your inbox is too far gone: search label:unread to filter out all read email.

Schedule your email passes like you do your backups. When asked how often you should backup, common wisdom answers “as often as you can afford to lose.” If you don’t mind losing a day’s worth of work, backup daily. If you can’t bear to lose even 15 minutes of work, backup every 15 minutes. Same with email. If you want your inbox to remain empty, then you need to check your email as often as you need to keep it that way…and the answer is different for everyone.

If you don’t want to declare email bankruptcy, an empty inbox doesn’t happen by itself.

While there are tools that can make processing large amounts of email easier, Inbox zero is a time commitment. How much time depends on how much email you get. If you get hundreds of emails a day, and you only check your email once in that day, you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re ever going to get on top of it for more than 5 minutes. Or, if you check more often but then spend 45 minutes answering or dealing with one with all the rest sitting unread, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, if you only get a handful of messages in an hour, checking every few hours is probably fine. Personally, I get around 200-250 messages a day during a typical weekday…not counting spam, advertising, newsletters, notifications and other such junk.

Use Remember the Milk‘s Gmail extension. I can’t sing the praises of this utility high enough. It gives you a list of your tasks right in your email window, which is where tasks belong if you live and die by email. It works just fine in Firefox 3 Beta 5, although it was written for Firefox 2. No other browsers are currently supported, and you must use Gmail 2.0.

Once the extension is installed, it’s most effective if you configure it to work directly with your email. Set up a label in Gmail specifically for tasks and configure RTM to automatically create a task for you when that label is assigned.

The RTM extension works across multiple Google Apps/Gmail accounts, but you will need to create the necessary labels/settings individually in each account. Use the same labels across all accounts for consistency.

I find this more intuitive than forwarding an email to a special inbox as most online task managers do. Now archive the message. There’s no reason to have it sitting in your inbox since RTM is keeping track of it for you. Use priorities and due dates to make sure your most important tasks are at the top. As soon as you remove the label, the task is removed. Or, you can hit the little red mail icon on the task which will compose a reply to the email for you. As soon as you send the email, RTM is smart enough to know the task is done and it’s off your list.

Use Gmail’s labels and conversation view to your advantage. It’s easy to apply an old-school folder/tag way of thinking and apply Gmail labels by content through a filter…all messages from Om, all messages that have “Google” in the subject, etc. This is easy to do in any desktop email client as well.

For me, I find it’s more effective to apply labels based on action, not content. I can do a quick “from:Om” search to find his archived emails, rather than have a specific label. Instead, my labels are simple and based on the action I need to do.

Simply adding a star to a message isn’t enough to stay organized.

Quite often, I’ll need to keep something on my radar, but there’s no task for me until I hear back from someone else. In that case, I will assign the “Waiting” label to the email as soon as I send it. In Gmail, the advantage is that the entire conversation has the label, not just the email I sent. When the person gets back to me, I have immediate feedback in my inbox that this was something I was waiting on:

Rather than marking something as “waiting” only to have the drudgery of keeping that list up-to-date, I can immediately remove the label from the thread. Later when I’m reviewing the waiting items, I’m not wasting time marking off items that are already complete.

Turn off all email notifications. You would think that someone with an empty inbox responds to every beep to get it that way. Not the case. I naturally move to the inboxes in between tasks and can burn through messages using tasks & labels to organize my follow-up actions. I know that someone who needs to reach me immediately will IM or call me. My colleagues know that my email never piles up so if they email me, they’ll hear from me sooner rather than later.

It’s a constant balancing act between working through the tasks, and working through the inbox. During busier hours I’m concentrating on the inbox. During slower hours I’m typing the longer replies off my task list. Regardless, if your attention is on your inbox, then process to zero. Like laundry and dishes, if it doesn’t pile up the task is never overwhelming.

Not every email requires a reply or action. When in doubt, archive it and move on. I have an “eventually” label set up for those items that require no short term action, but I may want to revisit later.

If I fear that I won’t get back to someone quickly given my focus on working through the inbox rather than the tasks, I’ll respond with just a sentence or so giving them an idea of when I will get back to them with a more complete answer. Then, I set that time/date as the due date on the RTM-generated task.

Do you find zen in an empty inbox? If so, share your tips for making it happen.