Simon Fowler's Blog

One week with zero inbox. How I did it.

Posted by Simon on January 9, 2012

No, srsly! A whole four days of work with the same working people I work with all the time at work working! And my inbox, when I left every night, was at zero! This meant I was not hammered by the worry that comes from not quite knowing which of the 300 emails actually needs an action.

How? A bit of Getting Things Done mindset, “One touch”, and some tools into which to put tasks, information and files.

“One touch”: I read it once, then I do one of the following immediately, then I delete it or file:

  • If it’s part of a chain I delete every prior email in that chain immediately (I don’t know why I ever kept them).
  • If it looks like it requires a reply that day, or I think I can reply that day, I hit ‘reply’, then delete/file, even if I don’t have the answer or information immediately. The open email is then a visible task and I don’t have to go looking for that email I knew I had to reply to.
  • If it requires an action, or can be replied to on a later date, I create a task in Toodledo (giving it a due date, priority, status, project), or I create a calendar entry, then I delete/file.
  • If it contains information I copy the information into evernote and/or (if it’s a web link) into diigo, then delete or file.
  • If it has attachments, I download to desktop and/or dropbox, then delete or detach then file (because of absurdly low limits on corporate Exchange mailbox size).

I have a Dell laptop, an iPad 2 and a Galaxy Nexus (android) and the tools mentioned above allow me to  take those actions on any device: on my laptop when I’m at my desk, on the iPad when I’m in the office but away from my desk (the laptop isn’t very quick or reliable to make ‘mobile’ when it’s in a docking station),  or on my phone when I’m commuting.

A few other notes/tips:

I use Toodledo over Outlook tasks because of all the mobile accessibility, because it’s more geared towards the Getting Things Done methodology, and because its flexibility is easier to work with than Outlook (creating custom fields was okay if you only needed it on your computer).

I use the same naming conventions for my Evernote notebooks as I do for Toodledo folders, which makes it easier to know where things are, although text search on both Evernote and Tooledo are super fast so i rarely need to go searching via folder names.

The tools all have excellent web-based interfaces or apps on Windows, iPad and Android. Most are their own apps but for Toodledo “DGT GTD” (by @gdtale) looks the best ever since GotToDo went off the market.

I tag and label like crazy in Evernote and Toodledo. Though it takes a few extra clicks and a bit more typing (than simply leaving the  email there!) it’s totally worth it for sake of the confidence of knowing what I need to do or where to find stuff.

I hope this is helpful and I welcome questions or suggestions for improving the system. Here’s hoping I can make it two weeks!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention what I did to reduce the number of emails coming in. In one instance I managed to convince Person A to use Google Docs instead of a round-robin email to gather input they wanted from 5 other people. Excepting the emails I sent & received to make this happen I reckon this saved at least 15 emails, at least two from each plus who knows how any chasers.

More importantly it removed a ton of mental load:

  • wondering if or when Persons B-F would respond
  • wondering if they were looking at the latest version
  • having to mess with ugly fw:fw:re: email formatting
  • trying to remember who they were supposed to send it to next
  • wondering if the next Person was getting all antsy waiting for you
  • where the ‘final’ version with everyone’s input and wondering when or who to ask for it

Person A sent an email to Persons B-F (i.e. total 6 people)


4 Responses to “One week with zero inbox. How I did it.”

  1. Thanks for sharing Sion. A great GTD work flow for email!
    I use some different systems but will see how to apply in Apple Mail & Daylite.
    Thanks, Andi

  2. Wow, Simon you sound like a digital native, Loved the post. I read GTD about 5 years ago and implemented the basics. At that time there was no dropbox, evernote etc so I never thought about how to incorporate those. I like the way you have them all linked up to your all your devices.

    • Also, I’d be interested to know if this has had any effect on the amount of time you are on email or are checking it. What have you noticed if anything?

      • Simon said

        Thanks Nick!
        Interestingly it feels like I’ve been spending less time on email than usual. And less time thinking about it. That was the objective really – not getting to zero inbox, but to spend less time managing and thinking about email.
        I think the real trick has been the ‘one touch’ – and then doing something with that touch that puts information/task in a place (and context) that is more condensed, organized and easily accessible, whether it’s information or an action.
        I’ve never permanently deleted an email in 8 years here, so I have gigabytes of archived .pst files. So I should have stopped overthinking deleting or filing emails a long time ago. I’m trigger-happy with them now.

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