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How I've Kept an Empty Inbox for Over a Year (Gmail Edition)

Answer these questions:

- Do you have under 500 emails marked as unread in your inbox? Under 50? Under 5?

- Can you pull up every email that requires some sort of action or follow-up from you in under a minute? How about in under five seconds?

- Are ALL of your emails organized in specific folders or with specific labels?

- Are you confident you have never missed an important email?

- Are you able to answer "yes" to all of the above questions AND spend less than five minutes a day managing your email account?

If you didn't answer yes to all of the above, the following process is what I've used for the past year to keep my account looking like this for over a year with minimal effort:

If your inbox looks like this...'s time for a change.


The Delete / Archive Method

When you follow my method, every email in your inbox will either be deleted or archived.

Every email. Every day.

If you ever have an email sitting in your inbox, you failed at this process.

Below is a flow chart that outlines the basics of what I call the Delete / Archive Method of email management:

I'm going to walk you through this method step-by-step, but first let's have a brief moment of honesty.

If your inbox has thousands of unread emails, understand one simple fact: you did not accumulate those emails in fifteen minutes.

And BIG SHOCKER! You won't organize and clear them out in fifteen minutes. This may be a multi-hour process if you have 5000+ emails.

Unless... want to delete everything in your inbox and skip to the section below on Step Three: Maintaining an Empty Inbox. If you're afraid, however, that you could delete something important, then accept that it might take a small time investment if you've really let your inbox get out of control. I'm not talking days or anything, but it may take a few hours to organize thousands of emails.

Let's get to work.


Three-Step Process

There are three steps in acquiring the freedom of an empty inbox:

1) Preparing for the empty inbox

2) Achieving the empty inbox

3) Maintaining the empty inbox

Step One: Preparing for the Empty Inbox

You need to do two things before we start to empty your inbox:

1) Create a label called 1-Reference.

Go to the settings menu (1), scroll down a bit until you see the Create new label option (2), and then create a label called 1-Reference (3).

The reason for the 1 in front of the word Reference is to place that label at the top of your label lists, which is sorted alphabetically. The addition of the 1 is optional, but because I actually use the reference materials from this label quite frequently, I like it at the top of my list. Scrolling down to R would be an annoyance and a drain on my productivity.

2) Turn on the Starred and All Mail system labels.

When you archive emails, they are removed from your inbox and placed in your All Mail folder. Turning on this system label allows you to quickly access that folder if needed.

And because we are going to mark every email that requires an action with a star, enabling the Starred system label will be critical to remaining organized and effective in follow-through.

You can turn on both system labels (and a few others if you wish) in the settings menu under labels.

Step Two: Achieving the Empty Inbox

With this step, the amount of effort required will vary with the amount of emails in your inbox. If you're aiming for 100% clear and 100% organized, the only way to do that is to go email by email using the Delete / Archive flowchart to move emails out of your inbox. Hundreds of emails will take some time. Thousands of emails will take more. Tens of thousands...

...we probably need to talk about a thing call adulting.

I'm going to provide you with a few short cuts below to help speed this up, but the basic process is this:

1) Open the top email in your inbox.

2) Ask: Does this email pertain to me or the job I do?

- No? Delete it.

- Yes? Continue.

3) Ask: Do I need to do something as a result of this email?

- No? Archive it. You've consumed the information. Move on.

- Yes? Star it and then archive it.

4) Ask: Will I need to refer to this email multiple times at any point?

- No? Archive it.

- Yes? Label it as 1-Reference and then archive it.

If you follow the above steps for every email that you have accumulated, then you will have an empty inbox. While this can be a lengthy process, below are a few short cuts you can use to accomplish this task a little more efficiently.

Archive All Emails From a Single Sender

Most likely, a large majority of your emails come from at maximum a few dozen senders. Particularly if you're working on clearing up a personal account, monthly reminders about bills or payments for those bills can add up to a lot of emails.

A quick way to group and archive emails from a single sender is to hover over the sender's name in your inbox (see 1 below) and right click on the sender's email address (2), copy and paste that address into the search bar of your email (3), and then search for all emails from that sender.

1) Hover over sender; 2) Right-click email address; 3) Copy address and paste in search bar

This will allow you to use the select all option to label and archive all of these emails at once.

By selecting all emails from a single sender, you can label them together as a group and then archive them. If you need them again, they will all be grouped under the assigned label.

Archive All Emails Older Than a Year

Any email over one year old is most likely not relevant to what you're doing today on a day-to-day basis. And because this short cut simply archives your emails into your All Mail folder rather than deleting them, this can be a very quick way to clear a lot of older emails without losing any potential important documents or information.

To archive every email in your inbox that is more than one year old, you need to do four things:

1) Type older_than:365d in the search bar in your Gmail account.

2) Select the Select All box.

3) Click the Select all conversations that match this search option.

4) Click the Archive button.

This short cut may not be for you, and that's okay.

Congrats! If you had thousands of emails, you probably just cleared a large portion of your inbox.

Note: 365 can be modified to any number of days. If you only want to go back a month, make that adjustment. If you want to go beyond a year, you can do that as well.

Step Three: Managing the Empty Inbox

Once your inbox is empty, it's actually a fairly simple process to keep it clean. With my work account, I average between 10-15 emails on a slow day and 50+ on a busy day. Regardless of my work load, I very rarely spend more than five minutes managing my email account on an average day, and I end every day with the following messages on my computer and my phone:

The relief those messages provide are worth every bit of effort I've mentioned so far. I promise.

There are six things I do to maintain my inbox:

1) Stick to the Flowchart: Delete / Archive Method.

If you follow the flowchart for every email you ever get, you be able to process emails quickly and confidently.

Remember this always:

Every email has a place, and your inbox is not that place. Ever.

Either the email pertains to you or it doesn't. If it doesn't, it's trash.

Either you need to do something with the email or not. If you do, star it, archive it, and then add whatever you need to do to your task manager or to-do list.

Either you will need the email as a reference or you will not. If you do, label it for your reference folder and archive it. It will be easily accessible when you need it.

2) Use filters and labels generously.

Gmail has a fairly robust filtering system, and if you've created labels for emails from certain individuals or for certain projects, then the filtering system will only make your life easier and increase your productivity.

Go into the settings menu again and click on Filters and Blocked Addresses. Scroll to the bottom of the screen and select Create Filter.

A form will pop up, and here you can tell Google to automatically take a few actions when emails with your specified criteria go into your inbox.

Criteria you can use to create filters. Most of my filters are set up based on who the email comes from or what is in the subject line.

Below is an example of a common filter that I created.

With this filter, every time I get an email from TxEISDC (my district's payroll system), Google automatically labels those emails as Pay Stubs. You can also have Google apply your chosen filter to any emails in your inbox that match the same criteria.

The beauty of filters is that it makes archiving non-action, non-reference emails so quick and painless. I have filters set up for any email from my boss, from my wife, from myself, and from a few co-workers.

I also filter emails that I send to certain individuals. One example would be emails that I send to our district print shop. Every time I send an email to our print shop, Gmail automatically labels my sent email as Print Shop, a process that allows me to keep a solid record of what I've sent and what I have not.

3) Implement the 2-minute rule.

This concept is from David Allen's Getting Things Done. If something takes less than two minutes to complete--in this case, responding to an email--then respond. If you have to take action as a result of an email and that action will take you less than two minutes, then do it and move on with your life.

I've implemented this rule in all areas of my life, not in only dealing with email. It is crazy how many things I used to put on my to-do list that take only a few moments to accomplish.

This rule is the ultimate procrastination killer.

And the ultimate inbox killer.

4) Implement the 50-star rule.

As you begin to star emails, your Star folder will be your hub for anything that requires action. It's basically an automatic to-do list.

However, you can't just move things to your Star folder and never follow through on what was asked of you. You need to schedule time for the purpose of completing email-based action items.

An easy barometer for whether you're effective in your follow-through is to limit yourself to 50 starred emails. If you start to reach the 50 star limit, then you need to either schedule more time to knock out some of your tasks or you need to remove the star label on the older tasks that you obviously aren't going to get to.

5) Unsubscribe. And unsubscribe some more.

This is simple. If you subscribe to a newsletter or a blog feed or a sales ad and you ever, at any point, have three or more of those emails marked as unread, you need to unsubscribe from that service.

This is just clutter that you're obviously not reading. Get rid of it. I promise you won't miss it.

6) Add an interesting background image to your inbox.

Google allows you to change the theme of your Gmail inbox. While I think theme is a little misleading, it is nice to be able to change the background image of your inbox.

There are several decent default images; however, I appreciate the option to add your own image. Currently my background is set to a picture of the Great Wall of China that I took while on a mission trip there.

Having that image in the background gives me just that little bit of extra motivation to make my way completely through my inbox every day so that I can see my picture.


Obviously, this is not a simple process to set up.

But it is a simple system to implement once you are to the final phase of simply managing your inbox.

Free up your time. Get organized.



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