Productivity: 6 steps I took to make peace with my Gmail

My GMail Inbox used to be horrible. I had probably 9-10 000 e-mail messages floating around that I never did anything about and new messages could easily get lost in the huge pile of read, replied, not read e-mail messages I had.

I tried several different systems with labels and stars but nothing stuck – and the sheer amount of new e-mails I got made any attempt at cleaning up regressing quickly. I found myself “spring cleaning” every now then only to see it all slide back into chaos.

Until I read about GTD and the way that this methology suggests you deal with incoming flows of information. So here’s a simple guide how I achieved e-mail peace of mind.

1. Empty your Inbox
Archive or Delete everything you have in your Inbox right now. Don’t keep a single message.

2. Stop reading your e-mail constantly
Visit your Inbox three times per day – at most.

3. Create some labels
I decided to only have these labels (and no others – better avoid complexity):
today, tomorrow, this week, next week, someday and mailing lists. Their usage will become clear later on.

4. Auto-archive all mailing lists, frequent mailers etc.
Get your Inbox as clean as possible, for all those mailing lists or mailers, I create a filter and I chose to put the mailing lists label and also “Skip the Inbox” so I only see them under the mailing lists label.

5. Process your Inbox completely

Every time you visit your Inbox, go through your e-mails one at a time and go through all e-mails. For each e-mail take one of the following actions:

Trash it:
If it’s not important (spam, mailing lists, whatever)

Archive it:
If you want to keep it for later but it doesn’t require action

Store it for later:
Put that “someday” or “later” tag on it if it doesn’t require any action irhgtn ow.

Do it:
If it takes less than 2 minutes to reply just do the action required for the e-mail and then Archive it.

Delegate it:
Hit that forward button! If it’s not you how should do it forward it immediately. Then Archive it.

Defer it:
If you don’t want to do it now set a date when you do it. Now use your labels to set when you do it.

6. Process your labels

Now everyday make sure to process your labels. Take the “today” label first, finish that. By the end of the day make sure to move all the mails from “tomorrow” to “today”.

Weekly, move your “next week” mails to “next week” and so on.

And that’s it. This is all you need to make peace with your Inbox. Try it out with your GMail first and then try to apply it to other Inboxes in your life – like your voice mail or your regular (paper) mail.

Remember – after each time you check your e-mail it should be completely empty. I mean it – not a single message should be unhandled. Don’t let any e-mail stay in the INBOX after you’ve processed it, and always process all e-mails from top to bottom.

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