I’ll admit to being more than a bit OCD in my desire for a clean and organized workspace. But, from my experience with a slew of coworkers over the years, that’s not an entirely unusual trait. Whether wild creative types or precision-minded engineers, at least 50% seemed to feel and think better when their physical environments were tidy and undistracting, with everything in its right place.

So I’m always shocked by those same people’s email inboxes, which inevitably contain thousands (or even tens of thousands) of read and unread emails. I get agita just from the thought. And, indeed, if you’re a clean-desk type, I’d suspect you, too, would feel similar peace of mind from an equally minimalist inbox.

Try it out yourself, with this simple approach.

First, move all the old stuff into a backlog:

  1. Create a folder (or, in Gmail, label) called “Backlog.”
  2. Select every email in your inbox. (In Gmail, select all using the checkbox icon at the top left, then click the “select all conversations that match this search” link that appears to get select those past the first 50 results.)
  3. Apply the “Backlog” label to all of the messages.
  4. Click the archive icon.
  5. Boom. Inbox zero.

Tomorrow, at some point during the day, your goal is to make sure you empty out every single email that has come in after now. If something doesn’t need action, archive it. If it needs a response, fire one away, then archive it. If it requires a non-email task, a longer response than you want to deal with right now, or is waiting on something, make note of it on your to-do list, then archive it. The important thing is that you get back to zero, daily.

Each day, too, pull up the backlog folder / label, and process part of the way through, starting at the top, the same way you would with the inbox. In my experience, that’s usually faster going, as an increasing percentage of the stuff no longer needs a response as you work backwards. If you have years of stuff in the backlog, once you make it a few weeks (or a month) back, you can probably just archive the balance, as there’s unlikely to be anything active, and if there is – and it’s still important – they’ll email you again.

And that’s it. That’s the recipe for inbox zero. It even works repeatedly if you fall off the wagon, and need to declare a new backlog / need to start again fresh in the future. All you have to do is make your way back to empty again each day, with only a day’s worth of incoming stuff.

People seem to think this requires extra work, but it definitionally doesn’t; if you’re going to respond to an email eventually, it takes the same amount of time regardless of when you do it. So you might as well do it within 24 hours. It’s great to feel on top of your emails. And, as I said, if you’re a neat-freak, the degree to which an empty inbox soothes / allows you to focus on real work is an order of magnitude better than a clean desk.

April 6, 2017