GMail Inbox Zero. Dear Merlin- Thanks!

I have toyed with this concept before, and thanks in equal parts to Merlin Manns Inbox Zero, GMail, and my own epic laziness and lack of desire to wade through, well, crap, I have finally succeeded.  I bragged on Facebook and got a few people expressing an astonished brand of envy, so I thought I’d write this up. I’ll admit- a prime mover for me was my Blackberry and Droid phones. The Blackberry handles corporate email, which is checked via Outlook in the real world. I hate Outlook, but it’s The Only Thing at work so I use it. That said, I’m writing here about GMail because that’s something I actually enjoy.

The concept of Inbox Zero is very very simple: Things don’t ever live in your inbox, you either reply or file or delete. The concept goes further to state that your time is finite and precious, and so is the time of others. It goes further to say that attention is a currency, a topic interesting in and of itself.

So, now that you’ve perused Merlins masterwork (you did, right?) you are wondering what GMail can do to help. It’s simple: you can cheat. I have 2 domains and an address, all of which I use for different… stuff. Ignoring for now the recent change that makes me do browser acrobatics to have more than one up at a time, that’s a lot of email. I get stat reports (congrats, gentle reader- you’ll be in the next one I see), email lists, Facebook/Twitter notifications, email from friends and family, bills, reminders, invitations, etc etc etc ad infinitinauseum. It’s a lot of email.

So I cheat.

Before I start detailing my email trickery, I’ll ask you to go turn a few things on in GMail. The first is Reply and Archive, in the Labs section (look for the nifty beaker) which changes your standard Send to a button that archives the original email conversation. This one is invaluable and it alone will save you a lot of time. When a reply comes in to the convo, it automatically gets un-Archived and is back in your inbox. The second is Hide Read Labels, also in Labs. This will enable you to use more labels than you might otherwise. While researching this, I decided to try Nested Labels too, for more granularity. Lastly, Title Tweaks, which puts your unread count first in the title, making your tab or minimized icon more informative.

Starting with social media. OK, I like to know when someone comments on my posts. I like to know when Facebook has a new message for me. I like to know when friends add me, when conversations I am in get new hits, and when basically anything happens. The trick is that these emails will all come from the same place. I lump them, using filters, into a single Social label and let them come pouring in. When I have acted on the ones I want to, I simply hit the label on the left, Select All, delete. Poof, gone. That’s a third of my email  out the door right there. I have a separate one, skipping the inbox as below, for Professional Networking(eg LinkedIn).

Next, I have what I call “AutoInfo”. Do I want to read every time a spambot makes a (ultimately worthless) account on my blog? Not really. I’ll process it in batches, later. Why work onesy-twosy when you can go wholesale? Likewise things like site stats. These labels get a filter too, but this one has more elegance- I enable the Skip Inbox flag. This way, I can keep these around for when I want to spend a minute on them without having them in my face all day. When it’s time to peruse, I hit the label, look at what I want, Select All and Mark As Read(skipping the inbox = Archive). I do the same with mailing lists, though those I tend to Delete. I have another for Offers- places I sign up that dish specials and deals. Boom boom boom, done- that’s another lump gone with minimal effort and they never even hit my inbox to begin with.

I have a Business label for my bills, service notifications, statements, and assorted stuff of that ilk. This one actually gets some care applied to it. I hit the label when I have time to go through it, handle what I can/want to immediately, and add another label(FollowUp) to the ones I can’t handle now. Then I go down the list checkmarking what I want to delete. I delete that and archive the rest. Now the things that need later attention for whatever reason (eg can’t pay that now, want to crosscheck that at home, etc) are all lumped in a separate label, fit for later batch processing.

After all of that is done, then I have personal correspondence and spam generally. I mark the spam as such, training the GMail spam detection in the process, and reply-and-archive, archive, or delete personal correspondence and before you know it I have a clean and clear inbox with a few tasks lumped in a folder and email searchable in the archive for the things I care about.

Now I’ll wrap up with the big cheat: the email DMZ. This is a last-resort panic button. It’s crappy and a bit of a lie but a very comforting one and something you should definitely do once you have your filters set up and you are trying to reach inbox independence. Use the labels you have set filters for (when you set them, make sure to Apply to xx Conversations Below) to handle the bulk as we talked about above. Then, make the label and select everything in your inbox. Label it DMZ, and archive it. Congratulations, you are at Inbox Zero (kind of). Keep on top of the incoming email, and process the DMZ in lumps as you get time. Eventually, it will be gone and you will have a shiny clean inbox.

These tools have helped me wrangle some sanity into my life. I hope they help you too!

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