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Inbox Zero – My Gmail Workflow

September 25, 2012 at 4:39 pm | blog | 1 comment


Okay readers, how many of you have hundreds (or thousands) of emails in your inbox? And have you ever had a message that you intended to follow up on that got pushed down past the first page of your inbox, never to be seen again? Here is my recipe for making sure emails don’t get lost in the stream.

The Workflow

I use a variation of Gina Trapani’s system described here:

The gist of the system is to treat the inbox as a processing area, a temporary holding tank of items that are yet to be addressed/categorized. I use different colored stars to classify what kind of action an email requires (only star things that require action), then I archive it (or delete it if I don’t think I’ll ever need to refer to it again). I don’t use a lot of labels, but apply those before archiving if you wish.

Then I work off of my starred email lists, using Gmail’s Multiple Inboxes feature so that it shows my different starred items in panels in my main view.

Once you read something in your inbox, force yourself to make a decision about how to handle it right away and then either archive it or delete it. Don’t keep read messages in the inbox.

You either:

1. Reply right away if it can be done in under 2 min, then archive it.
2. Star it if it requires action on your part (must follow-up later, etc.), and archive it.
3. Delete it if you don’t need to refer to it again.

Then when you actually go through your starred items, you remove or change the stars as appropriate. You can of course also apply whatever labels/folders you want, but this system is about workflow, rather than filing. The point is to prevent emails from getting lost in the stream. Once your inbox goes past a single page, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever follow-up on those older emails.

Gmail Implementation

Here’s the setup in Gmail that makes this workflow work:


I use multiple colored stars for classification, a.k.a. “Superstars”. Turn these on in the general Gmail settings area. You can drag and drop the stars on the settings page to re-order them or to enable/disable different colors. On these, start out with the minimum you think you need. Most systems like this tend to over-classify things, then you end up spending all your time classifying things and never actually doing things.

Here are the ones I use, and the meanings I ascribe:

Default yellow star = Needs action on my part
Red exclamation = Needs urgent/immediate action
Blue I = Informational / interesting to read at some point, but does not require action
Orange arrows = Waiting on someone else to follow up – I’ve sent something and am expecting a reply.

Multiple Inboxes

Next I have my inbox view divided up into multiple panes, with the actual inbox (unread, unprocessed items) at the top, then urgent, then action required, then waiting, then drafts. In the snapshot above, there is one unread message in my inbox at the top (from LinkedIn), then a bunch that have been archived and flagged that require action.

To set up the inbox view, enable Multiple Inboxes from the Labs tab. You’ll then get a new Multiple Inboxes tab in your Gmail settings that I have set up like this:

Those weird search queries are shorthand for the different stars. You can test them out in the regular gmail search box to make sure it’s searching for the thing you expect. Here’s a full list of the search terms for the different stars:

Mine are here for easy copy/paste:
l:^ss_cr = Red exclamation
is:starred -l:^ss_cr -l:^ss_co -l:^ss_cb = Yellow star (there is no yellow star shorthand that I could get to work, so this is all starred, minus the other color stars i’m using)
l:^ss_co = Orange arrows
is:drafts = Drafts

Getting Started

To get started, you have to spend a little time going through your inbox, starring, archiving, and deleting everything one by one. Keyboard shortcuts can make this process faster:

j or k for next/previous message, s to star (multiple times to cycle through the different stars), x to select, and e to archive.

Once you process the first few pages of your inbox, you’ll probably be getting into outdated territory, where it doesn’t matter so much any more whether you follow up to those older messages. At that point, select all to get everything still in the inbox, take a deep breath, and archive it all. If you can get past the feeling that stuff isn’t in sight anymore, you’ll be amazed by how good it feels to 1) have achieved inbox zero and 2) have a system in place so that emails don’t get lost in the stream.

Like this system? Have suggestions for improvements? Share in the comments.

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One Comment to “Inbox Zero – My Gmail Workflow”

  1. stacy vlasits says:

    Good stuff, Nate. I like to use labels for receipt confirmations from Amazon and such, but I really like your system for dealing with more personal email. Nice writing and use of screenshots too.

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