Inbox:0 - A Practice of Awesome

Uhg. That feeling when you glance at your mail client and see hundreds of messages, most of which are unread. They trail on over weeks or months and create an instant stress-booster when you sit down at your desk. It’s the feeling that someone is always waiting on you to do something, and you can’t quite put your finger on who, or what, or when you had that message saying that you needed to do it, but you’re always suspicious of the messages that are just out of view on-screen.

Stop the madness! You don’t have to live like that, and I’m telling you it’s way better to achieve “Inbox:0” on a daily basis. It’s better to spend a small, regulated portion of your day (or a few of those windows) dedicated to cleaning your inbox and to never have the weight of email on your shoulders again.

I was first inspired to do this through a talk at WebStock by Scott Hanselman, which you can view here. I have to admit, I struggled for the first little while, getting on track and trying to maintain the practice. But, I’m going to do something that I couldn’t have done two years ago, and that is to share an image of my inbox. Here it is:

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Beauty, eh? This isn’t here as bragging rights, I’m just trying to illustrate that this is achievable and can be a reality for you. The only really hard day was the first one, when I had to make the decision to nuke everything in there. From there it was just about a little discipline and establishing some good habits.

How to Get There

Okay, I’m a pack rat. I didn’t really nuke everything in my inbox, but here’s the process I went through to whittle that baby down to a reasonable amount of mail.

The first step was to just admit to myself that anything older than a couple of weeks in age likely wasn’t going to be dealt with in a timely fashion. In other words…it meant that if someone had sent an email hoping to get my attention, they would have to write again. It honestly felt like I was letting people down by removing their messages. But the messages had already been reduced to clutter by virtue of my care to-date, so the damage had already been done. So, let it go. That was the biggest hurdle.

Next, I created a folder called Archive. I just wanted to be able to be able to find the messages should something come up (for example, needed a response from a manager or client). I moved everything in there that was 2 weeks old or older. I was starting from over 10,000 messages in my inbox with 2,000+ unread. This one step took me down to under 1,400 messages.

The final piece was just automating a couple of tasks. I don’t need all my build server notifications, Azure alerts or application log notices. I unsubscribed from the vendor bits I was no longer interested in (sorry, IBM and Salesforce), then deleted the messages. I created rules for these to mark the “everything is okay” messages as read and to move them to a folder. I applied these rules and got to under 250 messages.

20 minutes in, and I was within striking distance.

From that point it took me about 2 hours, but I was able to weed through the ones that weren’t really addressed to me, respond to some that needed attention and finally send a few meeting invites to folks who were requesting my time.

How to Stay There

The next bits aren’t nearly as hard, you just need to keep a little organized. I create top-level folders like “Projects” and “General”, then sub-folders to put client- or project-specific communication. But I don’t go overboard either - I just make small enough buckets that I can find what I’m looking for when I need it. I make sure that any new email list messages that come in get the “unsubscribe” treatment.

I also gave myself a few rules, namely:

  • I don’t check my email as it arrives, I try to only check once an hour or so. There are exceptions, like when I know we’re in a crunch, or when I’m waiting for a message from someone in particular.
  • I will scan my inbox and decide if it’s time for email before I dive in and address the messages that are waiting. This means that, yes, sometimes it will be several hours, or even a couple of days before I clear out my inbox, but this is a priority thing. If my voice isn’t needed on a thread I try to stay out and keep focused on my work. But when I do dive in and start reading…
  • I don’t leave messages in my inbox, also known as the “one touch” rule. There are really only a few things you can do with a message: respond to it, forward it to someone who can respond to it, or take an action on it. I’ll come back to that in a second.
  • I create rules to keep me sane and avoid clutter in the first place. If new alerts are created, or there are things I must be subscribed to, I create a rule to deal with those.

Taking Action on Your Email

As I mentioned, I will often respond to an email right away, or perhaps forward it on to someone who can help resolve the issue at hand. But other times it requires taking action. These should be done in a timely manner and none of them take much time to do, only a minute or two:

  • If there is work for me to do, I put it on my calendar. I will block out a piece of time to address it, and if it’s for the benefit of someone else, I let them know that I’ve done so. This way, I’ve set an expectation I can manage and they know when they are going to get the answer or result they need, and the message is out of my inbox.
  • If there is work that involves others, I schedule a meeting or work session. This can be a Skype call, a pair-programming gig or even just an online chat. Sometimes this can be an immediate action depending on those involved, other times it will be a day or two or several before we can get to it. But it’s on my calendar at that point, so it can get out of my inbox.
    There are things that don’t belong in your inbox. That’s it. So get them out and where they belong, be it in someone else’s hands or on your calendar.

Fly Away, Stanley, be Free!

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So, there’s really no secret sauce here. If you’re still reading this, you’re likely willing to give this a try, so carve out two and a half hours in your schedule and give it a go. Make rules that work for you, and don’t sweat it if it takes you one or two attempts to make it work, or a couple of weeks to find your groove on getting things cleared out. In no time, you’ll be rocking Inbox:0 and enjoying the stress-free benefits of seeing absolutely nothing when you check your email. Just like Stanley.

Happy coding! Smile