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Inbox Zero: the quest for email zen

Inbox Zero: the quest for email zen

Inbox Zero. Nothing in your inbox is on your mind. The zenful state of zero unread emails. Many people work hard to get to this point. In the past I used to proudly boast and preach that my process was the answer to everyone’s problem managing email but a couple of things have changed.  First, I’ve realized that I was wrong; there is no single answer to get to Inbox Zero.  Second, I’ve gotten fat, lazy, and out of shape. My e-mail and task management isn’t what it used to be so today I’m putting in the needed work to get email fit.

Getting Things Done

A few years ago I read Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allan and it sort of changed my life. It wasn’t rocket science but it allowed me to really hone in and focus on my own process of organizing and acting to get work done. In typical fashion I went all out. I diagrammed out my ideal process and worked on making it better. I used an online list management tool called Remember the Milk to help keep all my tasks organized. And unsurprisingly, this complicated process didn’t last long. It was great while I was excited about it but the habit didn’t form. It didn’t stick.

Fast forward to the present and things have gotten even worse. While my complex process went stale I still tried to keep GTD philosophies alive as much as possible. I’d keep lists in notebooks that were actionable tasks and many of these ended up tied to email. I’d focus on my goal-oriented lists while the unread email count in my inbox ballooned.

Inbox management for the rest of us

I recently read a great article by Hannah Gay on her process for staying“inbox-sane” and a lot of it resonated with me and my own struggles as well as many core GTD practices. I highly recommend reading her post on inbox management and today I’ve implemented her email labeling “secret sauce.” Here are the labels outlined in her article:

  1. Action Needed (when I need to take care of something)
  2. Reply Needed (when I need to get back to someone)
  3. Waiting For Response (when I BCC myself and am waiting for someone to get back)
  4. Delete when done (for the occasion when I need an email to chill in my inbox for a bit)
  5. Look at this (for the articles my boss forwards, cute puppy videos my friend sends me, etc. I’ll look at it…eventually. Or not)

Below are some screenshots of her actual inboxes (Gmail and Outlook) and well as my own new and improved email.


In addition to these labels, she calls out other useful pro tips like bcc’ing yourself and moving email chains to calendar invites when necessary.

“With all of this, I feel very zen with my inbox, and managing it with the methods outlined above keeps me on top of both my personal and professional life. Mostly.” – Hannah Gay


Implementing Hannah’s email hacks has already made me feel more in control of my life, and actually confident that this process is something I can turn into a habit. I think the secret is in the simplicity of execution coupled with the power of GTD principles. But I also plan to take her recommendations one step further using a gmail plugin called Boomberang.  This tool lets you put an email in the background and have it reappear at the top of your inbox as an unread email at a certain date and time. So in the case of label number three, Waiting For Response, I can send an e-mail, bcc myself, and then boomerang it so it pops back up to the top of my inbox in two days if there’s hasn’t been a reply.

With Hannah’s process and the help of Boomerang I hope to get closer to Inbox Zero. I’m ready to take back control of my work and email. Now we’ll just have to see how much things stick this time around.

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