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Chasing Inbox Zero

unreachableEarlier this week I hit the long-elusive inbox zero. The feeling lasted for about five glorious minutes before another project showed up, but it gave me the confidence that at least I haven’t been neglecting any digital fires.

How did I get out from under my previous email backlog? I tried out EmptyInbox, an app that’s designed for quickly reviewing Gmail on iOS devices. Currently, it doesn’t work with other platforms, and the free version includes at times distracting ads. But the app itself isn’t as important as the behavior it inspires. It’s not an email client, as it’s designed only for a simple set of tasks:

  • Read a quick excerpt of an email (with no option to click and read more)
  • Choose to leave in inbox, archive, star, label and/or trash (for automatic labeling and archiving, check out Amy’s tips for using Gmail filters)
  • Repeat until only urgent emails are left in the inbox–then deal with them

It sounds simple, but it’s actually I’ve found the most helpful part of EmptyInbox is the way it forces me to only pay attention to a short fragment of the email and decide what to do with it. The same model of forced attention is at work in several apps I use regularly, including the minimalist iWriter. Billie Hara’s great advice about avoiding distractions when writing applies here as well. One of the best things about using a system like this is it makes it impossible to get caught up on one email–perfect for quick clean-ups, like Natalie suggested in her model of 15 minute sprints.

I’ve started trying some of the same tactics with my work inbox by resizing my browser window to avoid seeing enough of a message to get drawn in during my first pass through a new set of emails. This is definitely a case where the mindset is as important as any technology: Natalie has some great advice on being mindful when dealing with email. And once you’ve culled down your inbox to the essentials, keep in mind Jason’s list of potential pitfalls in handling email.

Do you chase (or reach) inbox zero? What are your favorite tools for handling email? Share your tips in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User Daniel Zimmel]

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