I’ve written fairly frequently in the past about managing email and the psychology of information overload, and I try not to be too strident or hectoring when I do; after all, different approaches work for different people. But from time to time, I run into people who point out, quite reasonably, that they’re not tragic and pitiful productivity geeks like me; on the contrary, they actually have lives, and they just want to be told what steps to follow in order to triumph over their stress-inducing inboxes, so they can get on with more important matters.
And so, despite being sceptical about New Year’s resolutions in general, let me seize the calendrical opportunity to tell you – tell you, not suggest to you – how to head into 2013 feeling as odiously smug about your inbox as I do about mine, which, at time of writing, contains five emails. Here’s what you need to do. And no back-talk!
1. Use Gmail. Much of what follows will still be useful if you don’t, but you should.
2. Understand the point of “inbox zero”. The term was made popular by the blogger Merlin Mann, and given a recent boost thanks to this enjoyable New Yorker blog post by Silvia Killingsworth. There are purists who’ll tell you it means emptying your inbox daily, or hourly, but really, in the sense I’m using it here, it’s less an anal-retentive rule and more a state of mind.
The point is to think of the inbox as somewhere that emails pause, temporarily, en route to somewhere else, rather than as a place where you store them. How frequently you actually clear your inbox isn’t so important. The key is to cultivate a very mild degree of stress about every email in your inbox: like a greasy mark on a mirror, or a heap of dirty laundry in a hamper, it doesn’t belong there: it needs, eventually, to be dealt with.
3. Get over yourself with all the folders and labels and everything. Gmail has no folders, and its excellent search function means you’ll find what you’re looking for so long as it’s been archived. (Yes, we all have plenty of issues with Google, but “searching for things” is one skill they’ve got nailed.) Everything else is a waste of time. You probably think your job means you’re an exception here, but you’re wrong.
4. Declare email bankruptcy. If you’ve got more than a couple of hundred emails in your inbox, stop pretending you’ll get around to them. Remember that if anything is truly urgent, the sender will get back in touch. It’s time, therefore, to send all emails before a certain date to the archive.
To do this, using 1 December 2012 as an example, type in:inbox before:2012/12/01 into the search box and press the search button. Then click Select All in the drop-down selection menu, which is the little square with an arrow next to it. Then look for the phrase Select all messages that match this search and click that. Then click the archive icon (which is a filing box with a downwards arrow on it). If you get a warning message about what you’re about to do, click OK.
5. Breathe. Hallelujah! You now have a relatively manageable number of emails in your inbox. If you like, you could install a service such as Unroll.me to limit the number of junk subscription emails you receive. You could also do a search on the phrase in:inbox unsubscribe, which should find plenty of similar crap, from which you can then unsubscribe.
6. Do the hard work. This is the annoying part: you do actually have to plough through all the remaining emails. (If you can’t face doing them all at once, consider spending half an hour or so on the backlog every day for a week or two.) Consider each email in turn.
• If it’s rubbish, delete it. (Gmail was designed by eccentrics who argued that you never needed to delete anything, but they didn’t appreciate the psychological pleasure of purging, so ignore them.)
• If it’s something you might need to refer to one day, but it requires no specific action, then archive it.
• If it requires action, then either do the action then archive the conversation, or, if you already use some kind of to-do list, make a note of the action on your to-do list then archive the conversation. The third option is to leave the email in the inbox, thereby treating your inbox as a to-do list. The path to inbox zero will be slower this way, but you still have my permission to do it.
7. You’re at inbox zero! Celebrate with a party. And maybe a prominent tattoo. Tell all your friends, repeatedly: they’ll be thrilled for you. You are now morally superior, in all important respects, to people with overfull inboxes.
8. Keep your inbox under control. To maintain a manageable inbox, you just need to keep repeating step 6 – assessing each email, then dispatching it to its appropriate destination – on a fairly regular basis. (I get back down to zero roughly weekly, for what it’s worth.) And that’s it! If things get out of hand again in a few months, go back to step 1.
Feel free to contribute your own email management tips in the comments below, but remember, mine are the correct ones. Happy new year.
Our journalist Oliver Burkeman wants you to tackle your inbox, and tells you how to do it: