Starting with Inbox Zero

As part of joining Cornell I have had a shiny new Cornell email address for a few weeks now. Cornell uses Gmail for its email service (along with Calendar, Docs, Sites, Groups and a few more). I’m not sure if I entirely approve with Universities and large organizations using Gmail for their mail, I do love Gmail as a mail client and interface.

Previously, Lafayette used Zimbra and I would forward all my Lafayette email to my personal Gmail accont so that I could use the Gmail interface. While it meant that all my email was in one place, it also meant that it was a bit of a mess. I’d regularly end up sending relatives email from my school account and professors email from my personal account even though I wanted to keep them separate.

Since my Cornell account gets sa Gmail interface, I’m going to keep it separate from my personal email completely. And since it’s a brand new, empty inbox I’m going to try to keep it to Inbox Zero. The basic of idea of Inbox Zero is that you use a combination of automated filtering and quick, decisive action to stay on top of email. By having all email get sorted automatically and manually processing only the things that need human intervention you can end each day with a clean inbox (a state of Inbox Zero).

I don’t really have a problem with email because I barely get a dozen emails a day (even on the busiest of days). However I do have problems replying to emails. Sometimes I’ll let things sit for days on end, lose them in the pile of things sitting (even though everything else has been read) and eventually follow up days later much to the annoyance of the sender.

The tenets of my Inbox Zero mission for my new inbox are simple. For starters, my email address is precious. It only goes out for reasons that are directly related to me being a graduate student at Cornell. As much as I can, I’m going to avoid using it to sign up for services. I’m not going to provide it as an alternate for any of my existing email accounts. How much will this work? I don’t know, but I’m hoping it’ll keep out at least some of the useless not-quite-but-almost spam that I get for my personal account.

Next step is automated processing. Whatever can be automatically filed away using Gmail’s filters and labels gets filed away, within limits. I already have labels for 2 project mailing lists and one for automated mail from the University. What I keep in mind while I set up these filters is that I don’t want to splinter my inbox into a dozen different places. Whatever doesn’t get into my inbox I can deal with later. Later here is defined as: I’ll look at it at some point in the next 24 hours and respond to it if necessary. The email that does make it to my inbox is stuff that requires my attention quickly or needs to spawn a filter so that similar stuff doesn’t come back to my inbox. Once I have read and responded to (or filtered) all incoming email, everything gets archived. Since everything is labeled I can use the labels to come back to something later (or just use the powerful search tools).

The final piece of the puzzle uses Gmail’s support for multiple inboxes. Besides the normal inbox I have two more. One is for high priority mail that hasn’t been filed away (using Gmail’s automated Important tag which seems to work pretty well for me). The other is for email that I have to respond to, marked with a blue star. This leaves the normal inbox to contain only unread email that is not high-priority. This way I can see important things that I should look at right now, things that I need to respond to as well as unread, probably unimportant things that might need to be filtered.

This is the same organizational system I’ve been using with my personal inbox which I wrote about a few months ago. However, the fatal flaw was that I didn’t actually clear out my inbox, I just made sure I read and marked everthing with some label. Unfortunately a “clean” inbox doesn’t have the same psychological effect as Inbox Zero. It’s easy to lose stuff in a sea of “read”. So this time around no compromises: Zero or bust.

The real test of my resolve (and system) won’t come until things start gearing up again in late August. The one tweak that I will need to make is when I check my mail. Right now I leave the tab open all day, but I think that’ll be far too distracting if I’m going to get email every few minutes. Ill probably adopt some kind of “check every few hours” policy, but what hours remain to be seen.

As I’ve been writing this I’ve been thinking that I should go back and revisit the system I use for my personal mail. I need to clear the inbox all the way down to zero for it to work, but that pile of 11000+ mostly answered email doesn’t look too appealing. Maybe someday in the not too distant future. But I’ve learned some lessons (I think) and it’s good to be able to make a clean start.


Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

5 thoughts on “Starting with Inbox Zero”

  1. hey smartytechpants UVA uses a gmail interface too but i’m not sure i can just sign from gmail… as in, i can’t just go to gmail and put it my username and password, I first have to connect through the UVA website. But I can have it downloaded into macmail from the gmail server (which i think is weird). Can you do that?

    1. It’s the same for Cornell. They all use the same backend Gmail servers but the frontend is mapped to a or address. I might start using Apple Mail with it once I get a new machine.

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