From the Archive

The struggle for Inbox Zero, cont’d

March 17th, 2011 at 8:19 pm ET

Since reaching Inbox Zero last weekend, I’ve been making a valiant effort to stay disciplined and keep my obligations under control. This isn’t easy — I have a high-email-volume professional life, a lot of outside interests that also hit my inbox in one way or another, and (like most people of my professional generation) only limited administrative support. But it’s looking more possible than it used to be, thanks to the excellent tools that are now available to everyone for free:

Gmail. The Gmail web interface is designed by people who use it heavily, and it shows. Message threading, archiving behavior, keyboard shortcuts combine to make it the fastest way to process high volumes of mail by a large margin. And in virtually every respect, the product gets better and better, mostly in tiny ways that wouldn’t show up on a feature list but are obvious to heavy users. If you’re combatting a heavy email volume and you aren’t using Gmail, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Getting Things Done. This is a philosophy, not a product; but despite the cultishness of some of its adherents, it is not a cult for most of us, just a set of effective time-saving habits regarding how we keep track of the commitments we’ve made to ourself and others. I’ve talked about GTD before; here’s a detailed yet accessible introduction. Or if you’re a book person, buy the book that started it all.

GQueues. This free task manager (with some enhancements available if you pay $25 a year) is what Google Tasks should have been. Although you sign in with your Google ID, it was independently developed and is independently run, but (like Gmail) its developers are obviously heavy users of the product, which feels both stripped down and extremely carefully designed.

Evernote. A free notes archive, magically synchronized to the web and to all the devices you use it on. I pay $5 a month for the premium version (I forget why).

Increasingly regimented habits. A GTD-based approach (and I would say my approach is broadly GTD-based, although it isn’t textbook GTD) depends on instantiating a few good habits from which you never waver:

  1. Record all your commitments in one place, e.g., a central to-do list or set of lists.
  2. Break down complicated processes into individual actions — or, failing that, think about the first few actions you have to take.
  3. For each project or group of tasks, keep your mind on the next thing you have to do, not all the things that will follow it.
  4. Triage consistently, completing immediately those incoming obligations that will take just a few minutes, and putting the others on your list.
  5. Whenever possible, do things now; whenever possible, don’t do them partially, do them fully so you can forget about them.
  6. Work from the list, not from your email (which is probably just an endless series of urgent-but-unimportant fire alarms).
  7. Review your list on a schedule — a brief review every day and a more detailed review every week — to make sure it doesn’t accumulate cruft.

For me, the single most helpful productivity habit I adopted from GTD is the habit, from item 5 above, of taking care of things immediately if they can be taken care of quickly. An obligation completed is one you’ll never have to think about again — you can move on to something else.

That’s pretty much it. Do those things regularly, and you’ll be in much better shape. A system like that takes some ramp-up time, but once you’re ramped up and have good habits in place, it starts to become second nature and you wonder how you lived without it.

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