Changing My Inbox Changed My Life

Like a lot of people, I have a real love-hate relationship with Google. For every Gmail (a whole gig of storage in 2005?!?) there’s an equal and opposite Wave (just ?!?). So when Google Inbox launched last year, I was suspicious. But I gave it a shot.

Inbox turned out to revolutionize the way I deal with email, because it encouraged me to find my own version of Inbox Zero.

“Evil Gmail Inbox” by ticoneva on Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Evil Gmail Inbox” by ticoneva on Flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

For the uninitiated – those of you who don’t procrastinate by reading about productivity strategies – inbox zero describes the ideal email inbox: completely empty. To achieve this, one should set up filters and folders so that email is always dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you can reply to an email in under two minutes, do so; otherwise put it in a folder so you can reply when you have time. When you are done with an email, archive it.

This sounded absolutely ridiculous the first time I read about it. I set up a few filters to shunt junk into unobtrusive places, put student work to be graded in a temporary holding pen, and called it good enough. But by the end of each semester I would end up scrolling back through weeks of email to find something I’d forgotten to reply to at the time.

What Google’s Inbox forced me to do – something I’ve now adopted with all my accounts – is to consider my inbox as an active to-do list, not email purgatory. And it really did change my outlook (no pun intended, but I’m keeping it).

I have modified my expectations from the typical inbox zero philosophy, in that I don’t feel compelled to keep my inbox completely empty. But everything I leave there should require action on my part in the very near future. For example: requests for feedback from students or faculty, or invitations to events I haven’t decided if I want to attend. Ideally nothing should stick around there for more than a day or two, a week on the outside.

Everything else either goes in a folder (for emails that require action that is less immediate, or more involved), to Evernote for tagged storage (more on that in a future post), or gets archived. So every time I check my email, I’m only looking at things that actually require my attention. I’ll never lose something important that I need to reply to ever again.

Admittedly, switching over took work. I archived ten years worth of email once I decided to stick with this method full time. If you want some motivation or tips to create your first email DMZ, here’s a few more links to classic articles at If you’re looking for a satisfying organizing project for your winter break, this might do the trick.

There’s one other piece of Google Inbox functionality that I want to integrate into my work email: the snooze button. Inbox lets you “snooze” an email for a pre-determined length of time. So if you get an email that doesn’t require any action from you for two more weeks, you can get it out of the way without worrying about forgetting it. If anybody knows a way to get an Exchange account to do this in a Mac-friendly application, or if you have your own email tips and tricks to share, please do so in the comments.

This may seem like a weird thing to be so evangelical about, but I can’t understate the effect it had on my relationship to my inbox. Even if you’re sick of productivity bloggers and roll your eyes anytime somebody uses the phrase “life hack,” this one’s worth a try, I promise.

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