I haven’t outsourced my inbox yet like Tim Ferriss has. I still do it myself. So every time I hit Inbox Zero, I thank my friend Alex Samuel from Social Signal for her tweeting about her own inbox zero success. I used to have 3000+ emails in my inbox and another 20,000 somewhere in the archive. I finally found a way to clear it. It requires Gmail, a to-do list of some kind and Gmail’s awesome keyboard shortcuts, and some Apple keyboard shortcuts.

Ensure you already have a good to-do list manager of some kind, that you can use to sort and prioritize tasks. I use a basic google sheet in a dedicated Site-specific browser too called Fluid (so it looks like a desktop app and it has an icon in my dock), but you can use anything. The keys to success are in these principles:

  • Email is not a to-do list. Period. Get tasks out of there.
  • Archiving = peace of mind. I never really understood the value of archiving until I realized that it is a way to file…without the psychological overhead of filing. It is a way of saying “get this out of my inbox and put it away in case I need it again.)
  • The important thing is to either archive, action/archive, or put on list/archive everything.
  • Eliminate (in this case archive) everything you don’t need to action as fast as you can
  • Delegate (with short emails) nything you can as fast and succinctly as possible)
  • Put tasks into the task list, then come back and keep sifting.

So once you have your crazy full inbox and your to-do list:

  1. Go to the oldest email in your inbox and open it.
  2. Scan the contents and using standard GTD thinking, do one of the following:
    1. Task?
      1. Command-Tab to your task list
      2. add the task as an ABC or to-delegate item
      3. Command-tab back
      4. hit the magic “]” key.  (<- This archives the message and takes you to the next most current email.)
    2. <2 minute action?
      1. Command-tab to app to take action. If you need to send an email and don’t want to lose your spot in the email inbox in Gmail, hold SHIFT and then hit COMPOSE NEW MESSAGE. It will pop open a window on top. When you’re done and have sent it, the window will close, leaving you right where you were before.
      2. Take action. If that means writing an email, do it in five sentences or less.
      3. Command-Tab back to Gmail if necessary.
      4. Hit the magic “]” key to archive the message.
    3. Archivable? No action required?
      1. Archive and next with “]” key.
  3. Repeat as fast as possible until Inbox Zero.
  4. Celebrate.

The beauty of the ] key and the command-tab and the shift-compose is that with a few keystrokes, you can can clear hundreds or even thousands of messages in a few hours. My first pass? I cleared 3000 messages in a few hours. It can be done. And when I was done, I had a complete list of all of my tasks again. I wasn’t living with some tasks in email and others in a to-do list which is always a recipe for lack of prioritization anyway.

Have you hit inbox zero? How do you handle it? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear it.