Kyle’s Near Zero Inbox Recipe

Many of us consider email to be the most efficient way to communicate for work. How’s that been working for you lately?

The trouble is, the fundamentals of email technology haven’t changed significantly since its invention, but many of us use it  as the de facto place to inform and have important discussions. For a lot of folks, myself included, staring at a huge inbox and wading through email to find that really important thing you need to do can be a nightmare. It becomes even harder when you live a mobile lifestyle between multiple devices, and are trying to keep what’s important at top of mind.

This was a huge problem for me. Just ask my team members. So I started looking around for solutions and attempted a few GTD techniques around Inbox Zero that worked for quite a few folks. The problem I found was that changing my behavior drastically and becoming super organized wasn’t easy, especially if it meant I needed to spend lots of time sorting my Inbox. I’d rather spend my time creating things and having fun – not wading through a sea of information that I know darn well isn’t going to go away. So I stepped back and defined a process for managing email that would be “good enough.”

I defined “good enough” as the following:

  • I need a way not to re-read emails unless they are important.
  • I need a relatively easy way to find useful information from past emails in the future
  • I need a good snapshot of what’s new and be keenly aware that something new is there
  • I need a good snapshot of things I’ve yet to accomplish and I want to do something about
  • I need to have visibility of the snapshots across my Laptop, Tablet, and Phone

After identifying my goals, it was easier to create a formula that seems to work. I know it won’t work for everyone, but the more I talk about how it cured my Inbox nightmares at the QuickBase offices, the more I’m convinced this process might help others too. What’s great about the method is that it gives leeway for some chaos, and at times demands chaos to be successful. I call it my Near Zero Inbox Recipe, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned and see if others have some great ideas to make the process even more successful.

Near Zero Inbox – Recipe for Success:

Ingredients:

  • A handful of Email Flags
  • One Archive Folder
  • A healthy sprinkling of Search to taste

Step 1: Flag what’s important

As Six Flags says, “More Flags, More Fun.” Every modern email client has a way to flag emails that I absolutely need to address. I only use the flag itself (and never unset it) – ignoring the Project, Task and Due Date fields on any task.The important thing to making Inbox flags a success is to take the time to think through if the email is a priority or not. If there’s someone on my team driving a task or project, I don’t need to spend the energy to keep dibs on it in my Inbox.

Its also good to try and stem the flow of email before it hits your inbox. Emails great for sharing notes, inviting folks to meetings, and things like that.  But it’s not great for collaboration. If my list of flagged emails is too large (my comfort level is 20 flagged messages at any one time) the project should be tracked outside of my Inbox in QuickBase or some other business app solution to keep yourself and your team organized, updated and on schedule. Actually managing your projects in your project management software! There’s a thought. If my projects didn’t live in QuickBase I’d have a deluge of 100-email-long threads and could miss important details. Not fun.

Oh, and one more thing. There’s never a better solution then a good old fashion face to face or phone call to work through an issue.

Step 2: Archive the Stuff You Don’t Flag

I never delete any email (unless it’s obviously spam).  It sounds crazy, I know. Google is taking this same approach with their Gmail service.  I’ve found it really useful to have a pile of data around that I can refer to easily in the future.  How many times have you thought to yourself “If only I had that note Karen sent me last year about the Zoo it would be so useful!”   Folks around here know I keep all my email, and often ask me to help them fill in the blanks with my archive. Gladly.

If you didn’t flag it, it’s not something you need to be worried about this moment…so take it off your plate. I have a single folder called “Archive” where I store all my read and un-flagged email. The trick here is to get stuff moved there quickly so that you have good line of sight on what’s important.

BTW: I use this same trick for documents on my desktop – Near Zero Icon Policy. Unless I’m working on it, it doesn’t belong on my desktop so there’s a single folder on my desktop called “Stuff” that I use to store those files.

Step 3: Move Important Sent Email to the Inbox and Flag it

One of the more flustering things about email is remembering where a conversation stands. Did I ever get a reply I needed? Do I even remember I needed a reply? To help solve for this I simply flag the message I sent and move it into my Inbox where all the other important flags are. I’ve learned that I only need one message from any thread in my Inbox to remind me of what’s important about it so I also take other emails on the same topic and move them into my Archive folder.

Step 4: Trust in the Power of Search

The big simplifier that pulls this methodology together is that I can control all of the chaos with Search. What’s interesting about search is that we use it daily to find information on the Internet but we don’t often think about using the power of search to simplify our Inboxes. The good news is that recent versions of Windows & Mac OS X have wonderful search engines built right in – and it’s indexing your email already! If you prefer the simplicity of Google’s interface – Google offers Google Desktop which can also do the same thing to help you wrangle your email.

Works on the Go Too!

What’s great about having a relatively small Inbox full of only things marked as flagged or unread is that you now have a great mobile snapshot of what’s important and also a convenient way to quickly gage what’s come in that’s new.

It’s not always easy to file things on a mobile device. On my iPhone, when I read a message it marks it as “read,” so if I think it’s important I mark it as “unread” (because iPhones don’t have flags). Later, when I come back to my desktop, I scan my Inbox – automatically flag unread messages that I marked as unread while I was away and move all the rest of the read messages that aren’t already flagged out of the way into my Archive folder.

Saying Goodbye to the Email Shuffle

My old methodology for email control was fanatical categorization. This took a ton of time upfront for each message deciding where to put it, and in the end my category choice required me to spend time sorting through a pile of email anyways when I wanted to remind myself of content from the past. My new methodology has me spending zero time categorizing up front, and trusts the search system to do it for me. What’s great about this is if I can remember a few things anywhere about the email thread, I can quickly find what I’m looking for much like I do when trying to find something on the Internet. It works great! And sure I might spend a few extra moments when I do need to go back in time trying to find what I’m looking for, but the process is very similar to how I already look for info online and the amount of non-productive time I used to spend categorizing emails I’m now spending having fun working on projects or spending time with my friends and family.

I’m sure there are questions about what I do in certain cases, or ideas you all have about how you handle the same issues in your digital life. Care to share your tips and tricks? If you do give Near Zero Inbox a try, please do check back in and let me know how it goes!















Kyle Copeland

I’m the Application Operations Leader for Intuit QuickBase with a passion for consumer gadgetry, great music and fine wine. You’ll often find me hanging out with my partner in crime and our dog, singing a little tune, or sharing my zany thoughts on Twitter @SafariKC

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  • http://twitter.com/ShadeTC Tom Collins

    This is very similar to my methodology, although I’m still a bit tied to mail rules and categorization. Raw search sometimes provides just a bit too much information. I use archiving in Outlook to move older content out of my server inbox, and archiving by default ignores flagged messages. It’s getting to a point where I should maybe do a wholesale revamp of my inbox. I’ll keep these tips in mind when I do.

    [Reply]

    Kyle Copeland Reply:

    Thanks for the comment TC! I hope your inbox renovation goes swimmingly :-)

    [Reply]

  • http://www.facebook.com/SafariKC Kyle Copeland

    Timely Infograph on Mashable: http://mashable.com/2011/05/05/past-present-future-email-infographic/

    What have we done? :-)

    [Reply]

  • Ludwig Van Beethoven

    @facebook-607016559:disqus nice post. I generally user “stars” over labels for my Gmail. I personally feel that important and not important is a binary decision, but generally agree w/ as few labels as possible technique.

    [Reply]

    Kyle Copeland Reply:

    Yes… good point. It’s definately a binary decision. If you can’t make the decision that’s an entirely different problem – that most likely neds to be tackled before any productive work can be done anyways…. who want’s that “nagging task without a home” eating away at them. Yuck. That’s the intent of the Flags (or Stars – GMail’s equivalant)

    [Reply]

  • http://twitter.com/joshiav Ameya Joshi

    Nice post, good practical tips. Looking at the Inbox is especially horrifying after a vacation .. a quick method I was told in that case is the following: Delete all your emails without reading them. If there are really important issues, people will get back to you anyways .. that’s one way to empty your inbox (and possibly career) quickly !

    [Reply]

    Kyle Copeland Reply:

    Thanks @twitter-211907113:disqus

    I tend to keep up with email while I’m on vacation. But just check less often – once or twice throughout the day. I do the same process I outlined above, but I sort by conversation view and only read the last email in the thread. If I find something I know someone else on the team can move along, I point folks in that direction… If not I quickly check with the person who sent it if it can wait until my return or if they know someone else that can help while I’m out. I find people really appreciate the help even when I’m away, and the stress upon return is very light – I don’t feel lost and underwater & the team feels loved.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.deniseoberry.com deniseoberry

    Kyle —

    I love this simple approach and may just give it a shot myself. The power of search is what makes this work and I agree that it will only get more powerful.

    You did a great job explaining your process in simple terms. I have had major headaches in the past trying to find a specific email in a specific folder. It makes sense to just use one folder like your Archive. We spend way too much time tied to our email. Anything I can do to change that is a bonus!

    I also really like your desktop approach. I do the same thing — only my folder is called “Misc Stuff.” Guess I got a bit complicated with that name. :-)

    Thanks again for sharing your tips. You’ve helped me and probably a bunch of other people simplify our lives today.

    [Reply]

    Kyle Copeland Reply:

    Denise,

    Thanks for the comments! I’m looking forward to hearing how this method ends up working out a bit better for you. As you said – when it comes to process improvements (not just around email) – every little upgrade helps :-)

    I’m glad I’m not the only one with a Stuff folder on my desktop. I acutally go one slight step further as well – I use Dropbox to sync that folder to the cloud which helps me access those random documents on my iPad, iPhone, or any machine i have access too. Keeping your desktop clean has another added benifit other than helping me focus – I get to actually enjoy that great picture of Aunt Ann enjoing a day at the beach with a big straw hat and her fabulious sunglasses. Bonus!

    [Reply]

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