King of the empty inbox Merlin Mann did an hour-long presentation for Google employees this week on dealing with the daily onslaught of email, and the video’s now available to the rest of us. Hit the play button to see Merlin’s full presentation (slides available here) which is based on his excellent Inbox Zero series at 43 Folders. His system inspired most of the empty inbox proclamations here on Lifehacker, so this is your chance to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Thanks to Merlin and everyone at Google for making this one available to the public.
Managing the steady stream of email that gathers in your inbox every day can feel like an impossible task. Not long ago, I kept a lengthening list of folders in my email software to track messages by topic, sender, project, urgency and any other context that seemed relevant that hour. I’d spend lots of time carefully dragging and dropping every message from my inbox into the folder it seemed to belong in that day. After awhile I had so many folders the system was completely useless. Some of the folders – even after the work of creating and populating them – I barely ever opened again.
Since then I’ve slimmed down my email buckets to just three: what I call the Trusted Trio. Using just a few, simple action-based folders, it takes very little thought to keep on top of my email and a consistently empty inbox.
Note: This system is a modification of the excellent Inbox Makeover method published in Macworld in April of 2005 by king of Inbox Zero Merlin Mann. I’ve been using Merlin’s system since the article was published and during that time whittled my own version down from his suggested 5 to 3 folders.
The Trusted Trio
- Follow Up
These messages represent tasks you must complete; whether that’s a response that will take more than two minutes (anything less than that, just respond on the spot!) or some sort of an action. All these messages represent an item on your to do list.
Examples of messages that might go here include: a request to update the web site, or a message from a long-lost high school friend who you haven’t spoken to in years that you want to spend some time writing with updates on your life. To make sure you actually follow up on the messages in this folder, you must review it regularly. Alternately, when you add a message to this folder, make sure you also add it to your to-do list. Here’s more on how to separate your email from your to-do’s.
The Archive folder is your long-term email reference library. Place all the messages that contain information you may want to retrieve at some point in the long term future in Archive. Any completed threads, completed requests, memo’s you’ve read, questions you had answered, and completed project email goes into Archive. Basically, whenever an email is “closed”
but you may find it useful at some point in the future place it in Archive.
Dumping everything directly into Archive may seem scary to dedicated filers . It was to me at first. However, the archive is your “pile” versus “file;” Just remember it’s completely searchable, and any message you place there will be retrievable using a well-crafted query.
The Hold folder is a temporary holding pen for important messages you’ll need quick access to within the next few days. If you’re waiting on someone else to get back to you with crucial information, or you’re maintaining a thread about a time-sensitive topic, keep it in the Hold folder. For you GTDers, items in the Hold folder might correspond with items in the next few weeks in your tickler file.
Examples of messages that would go in Hold are: a FedEx confirmation number for a delivery that’s on its way, or a message from a co-worker that says, “I’ll get back to you Tuesday re: The Big Project.”
This folder should be reviewed on a regular basis and cleared out as the message contents are no longer needed (ie, that FedEx got delivered or your co-worker gets back to you.)
Empty your inbox
Now that the Trusted Trio is in place, it’s time to empty your inbox. Whether you’re starting with an overstuffed inbox with months worth of messages or the 2 dozen that arrived since your last processing session, the method is the same. Starting with the oldest message, open it up and:
- If it requires a response or action which will take less than one minute to complete, do it on the spot, then move the message to Archive.
- If it requires an action on your part that will take more than one minute to complete, move it to the Follow Up folder.
- If it’s a piece of information or a promise you’re waiting on from someone else, move it to Hold.
- If it’s an informational message you may want to refer to later, move it to Archive.
- If it’s of no use, delete it.
Wash, rinse and repeat for every message in your inbox until it is completely empty.
Keep it empty
Once you’ve got your inbox down to zero messages, keeping it that way is a matter of repeating the process above a few times a day. Schedule times for processing email into your schedule – like once first thing in the morning, once after lunch and once in the late afternoon. Train yourself to follow the golden rule:
Never leave a read email message in your inbox.
Commit to making a decision about the fate of every message you read in the inbox on the spot. Whether you respond immediately or file it in Followup, Archive or Hold, never leave a message in your inbox to make room for future, incoming mail – because there will always be more.
Now, just because you have all your messages filed neatly away in Followup, Archive and Hold doesn’t mean you’re free and clear. The hard part of this system is consistently revisiting Followup and Hold and complete the “open loops” stowed away there. To keep yourself from getting lulled into a total sense of completeness, mark all the messages in Hold and Followup as unread so you can keep an eye on the number of outstanding items.
Of course this exact system won’t work for everyone in every situation. For instance, I use a few other Lifehacker-specific labels in my LH Gmail, for instance, in addition to these three. But anytime I add a new bucket I think long and hard about it – and new additions are often temporary or saved search folders that eventually get deleted, whereas the Trusted Trio is a permanent fixture.
How do you organize your email to make sure nothing slips through the cracks? Let us know in the comments or to tips at lifehacker.com.
Note: this article was updated in January of 2008, to reflect the Action to Follow Up folder name change, reasons detailed here.
Update: Here are some tips on how to implement this system using Gmail.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, believes that email-wrangling is a required skill that many aspire to but few achieve. Her semi-weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Wednesday and Friday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Geek to Live feed to get new installments in your newsreader.