How I Tamed My Inbox

empty inbox Guess what? I finally cracked the nut on keeping my email inbox empty. The trick is all in what you do when you get them in. I’ll share what I did, and if it works for you, great. If it starts to fail for me, I’ll tell you so in another post. But I have a good feeling about this.

You’ll Need

  • An archive folder (in Gmail, this is a button. On other systems, you need somewhere to store stuff, in case you need to search for details later).
  • A calendaring software. I use Google Calendar.
  • A project tracking software. I use Things for Mac. You could use anything lets you group projects into contexts.
  • A file folder structure (online at least, and maybe mirrored in the real world – hat tip to my hero,Get it Done Guy, for this).
  • Two processes: sorting when mail comes in, and reviewing your projects regularly.

Quick Overview

Next, I’ll explain how this all works together. I’ll talk about:

  • Processing incoming mail.
  • Using the Calendar.
  • Project Structure.
  • Consistent Review.

Processing Incoming Mail

Mail comes in- Check mail X times a day tops. (I’m trying for 4, but not there yet). When it comes in, see if you can just reply right away. Try to close all informational loops in one go. Points off for “ping pong” emails.

Process step 1- If it’s not a “right away” answer, sort it into a project area. I’m calling “project areas” out by context. In Getting Things Done, David Allen uses physical context, like @computer, @phone, @mall. In my case, I’ve used the following project contexts:

  • Family/Home – my first priority, of course.
  • Commitments – these are things where someone’s awaiting a response or action for me that takes more than a few minutes.
  • Projects – These are more regimented things, like when the boss asks you to build out a new experience at a conference.
  • Speaking – I do lots of speaking, and I want to keep my commitments straight, and my details sorted.
  • Blogging – This has become where I stuff my “Hey, Chris. I have a social network about porcupines. Will you blog about it?” requests, so I can give them serious thought. (And yes, please feel free to contact me about your special amazing new whatever, if you think it fits the stuff I talk about here).
  • Personal – This deals with things like “file your taxes” and “upgrade cell phone plan” which matter only to me.
  • Research – I have lots of projects that are more for “rainy day” or “someday/maybe” so that’s where those go.

These are MY context areas. You could have completely different ones. More on projects in a bit.

Using the Calendar

If any of my projects are time specific, I put that information into Google Calendar. I then set up the reminders along the way. Further, if the project is large or lengthy, I set up little milestone time frames such that I will remember to work periodically on projects all the way up to their due date.

This part, the setting milestone reminders in the calendar, has changed my effectiveness, but I only JUST started doing this, so I’ll let you know if it makes the difference I hope it does.

Project Structure

UNDER my above-mentioned context areas are specific projects. For all my projects, I have tasks and milestones, notes, tags, and due dates for each part of the project. For example, I have notes and details on a new conference I’m launching for marketers for September in the Boston area.

Like I said earlier, I use Things for the Mac. You could use 37 Signals Basecamp, or MS Project, or whatever. The tool isn’t the point.

Consistent Review

This will all break down fast if I don’t focus on Things as my “go to place” to see what needs doing. And if I don’t make THAT the focus of my day while working on projects, and slip back into hounding my inbox, the whole thing will fail. You’ve heard that someone with two watches can’t tell time? I believe that someone with multiple systems of managing their tasks and projects will probably fall on their face.

I’ve scheduled reviews into Google Calendar recurring over the next few months. If it works, I’ll extend the schedule of little pings to check my responsibilities.

We’ll Check Back On This Later

This is a work in progress. I’ll let you know how it works out for me. In the mean time, tell me about you. How are YOU getting it all done? Does this make sense? Am I missing something obvious? How are you taming the savage project load?

By the way, Things doesn’t sync in any way with my BlackBerry and that’s a huge hole in this process. Hello? Could you fix that for me, Things? Anything?

Okay, what do YOU think?


For another completely different (and most likely better) method, check out the famed and touted Inbox Zero series by Merlin Mann.

The Social Media 100 is a project by Chris Brogan dedicated to writing 100 useful blog posts in a row about the tools, techniques, and strategies behind using social media for your business, your organization, or your own personal interests. Swing by [] for more posts in the series, and if you have topic ideas, feel free to share them, as this is a group project, and your opinion matters.

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