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My Inbox Zero sandcastle

For as many years as I’ve had e-mail, I’ve tried to keep my inbox empty. First it was because I liked neatness, then because David Allen’s GTD mandated it, and then because Merlin Mann came up with some excellent techniques for keeping your inbox empty.

The problem is, the problem has gone from out-of-control to beyond my control. I think it’s actually now beyond anybody’s control.

It’s like trying to keep the sea from washing away your sandcastle. You could do it early on – a folder or tag for every email you wanted to keep, a spam filter to get rid of spam. Those techniques worked not because they are effective, but because the ocean of email had not risen to your particular sandcastle.

And now it has. Five years ago, RSS was the bomb, email was overrun with spam, and the sheer volume of information from people you individually want to be in contact with had not flooded your inbox. For me, the tide has come in as every company, organization, and person I voluntarily deal with on the web lays claim to a chunk of my attention via email. I can’t blame them – I too want you to read my email. You – startup founder, microISV, what have you – do too.

Call this a self-inflicted wound if you must; but the reality is whether you dump everything from your inbox to some other folder or just let your inbox fill up with thousands of messages, it’s impossible to even file, let alone act on every single message that comes down the pike.

There is hope: I’m reading Douglas C. Merrill’s “Getting Organized in the Google Era” right now and maybe the biggest point that he makes that I’ve taken to heart is we’ve reached a point in the evolution of information where search isn’t justifiable strategy, it’s the only viable strategy.

So as of today I’m giving up keeping my inbox at zero, and will declare daily victory if I can only flag and capture emails I need to act on into OmniFocus which is my GTD master program. No more nice neat folders – it all gets crammed  into “Reference” once I’ve picked and flagged what I must do from the stream. File them all, and let search sort them out.

Incidentally, I’ve noticed that searching my IMAP-centralized Gmail in Chrome is about eight times slower than searching for the exact same term on my iMac in Mail. This could be because I’ve been singularly cursed by the gods of Google, or maybe everybody else has the same issue. Considering you can pick up a 2 terabyte hard disk for about $100, I’ll let Google continue to aggregate my email in the cloud so I can get it from anywhere, but will rely on my fast and trusty desktop legacy OS X Mail app to find what I need fast.

How about you? How are you turning the few nuggets of real, actionable e-mail into tasks that you can define, work on, and complete? I’d love to hear about how you do it – please comment.



  1. let’s you get emails out of yr inbox, and then returns them to you at the right time. For free. Otherwise, I’m just diligent about “archiving” emails daily. My inbox never sees more than 20 emails at a time.

  2. Why don’t you apply Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Workweek techniques and hire yourself 1 or 2 low cost virtual assistants to process all of this stuff for you and just forward the few important messages?

  3. I think that Tim Ferriss’ email approach would work if you have a tight definition of “important” at that point in your life. But right now I need to act on various emails about a set of current projects, watch for startups that have something really interesting, and rely on search to find anything else I might need, when I need it.

  4. I use a few tricks, inspired by TF and others:
    * Use Google Apps and have a catch-all email come to you, so you can make additional “sub-addresses” on the fly. So I have all my misc accounts go to, all my hosting go to, all my newsletters go to
    * Make a filter to route each subaddress to a label
    * For important subaddresses (i.e. my clients can mail I keep them in my label list, and they act as a secondary inbox. So my “support inbox” is 1 click away from my general inbox, and shows me how many unread emails are in it
    * For less important subaddresses, I “hide” the labels from the sidebar. They are still available in the dropdown list
    * For really not important stuff (i.e. newsletters), I mark the filter as unread so it doesn’t even attract my attention until I want to browse the archive
    These tips have transformed my inbox into a main account which is almost always empty, and a few sub-inboxes that I check once a day. Hope this helps!

  5. I don’t like the Gmail inteface so I use a hosted Zimbra account. Zimbra has a great web client interface which makes it easy to automate most of this via filters etc. Its easy to retrospectively mine your messages as needs change.

  6. Mail is so much slower with searching than Gmail. What are you doing there?
    How many mails do you get each day, where you really have to do something? Transferring these mails to OmniFocus sounds like a waste of time.

  7. Hi Beatrix!
    Maybe I’m the exception, but the average of searching for 3 terms in the web interface (Chrome) for gmail is about 8 seconds. Via Apple Mail – which is my gmail via IMAP – 1 second. That adds up when it comes to scores of searches a day.
    With Omnifocus, I select the email in Apple Mail, hit a key combination and the mail is copied into a new task. I edit the task name, hit save. I average about 10 of these a workday that will take me longer than 2 minutes to do.
    Thanks for your comment!

  8. Bob – I have all my email accounts dump in my MS Outlook inbox. Then I –
    Delete – if they are junk
    Move to Archive Folder – if no more action is required.
    Flag – if I have to respond.
    Then I work on reducing my flagged items by responding. I rarely search my archive (5 times a week at most).
    btw – thanks for the microconsults. Last month was the first time my side project income beat my full time job income.

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