Cool Tool #2: Kill the Tyranny of the Urgent USE Inbox Zero Strategies

This isn't a tool per se, and yet it is. Listening on the plane last week coming back from Maine, I heard a simply transformative podcast. Merlin Man of 43 folders sharing with Google his Inbox Zero Strategy.



This strategy of handling my e-mail has not only made my days more peaceful it has TRANSFORMED ME!!!

Basic principles that stuck with me:

1) Finite Time and Attention
Time and attention are finite and precious. If one looked at my e-mail and my online activities, how would they map to what is important to me?

You have a finite box of time and attention and every time you put a piece of trash box in your bigger box, that means there is something really cool that cannot be put in. Don't be stupid and don't put it in in the first place.

What I did: I use gmail, so I created a folder 2Read. Using the filter assistant, I went through all of my e-mails and filtered everything that is just “newsletters” etc. to automatically go to my 2Read folder, skip my inbox, and apply that to all existing conversations. After I pulled some 1500 e-mails out of my inbox (no I'm not kidding), I went to the 2Read folder and marked them all read. Bam! That felt good.

I now go to 2Read about 2-3 times per week. Why should a newsletter that I should probably be getting over RSS tyrannize me! Kill the tyrant of the urgent!

2. Getting Things Done by David Allen

He mentioned that book over and over. It is time for me to buy that book!

3. Software he recommends

For the Mac is his preferred. He likes the use of templates (prewritten e-mails that you copy and customize a bit.) If I wasn't in love with gmail's search and spam capabilities, I've researched and found that Thunderbird is a great mail platform providing these things. It is free.

I've scoured the net for an easy to use gmail template add in and haven't found one… would love your suggestions.

4. The basic premise of Inbox Zero

E-mail is a tube to get things from one place to another. It is not a task list. (You should keep one written down or handy and in front of you). It should not be your total focus. You should liberate things there and put them in other places where they belong. Write them on your list. Archive them.

Get the inbox down to zero. Everything you do should have one of five responses:

  1. Delete
  2. Delegate
  3. Respond To
  4. Defer (Put it on the To Do List)
  5. Go do it now.

What I did: I made sure I have a to do list handy and I've started hacking away at that inbox like a machete. I have found things I needed to do and issues to follow up with. Hack Hack Hack.

I've even found some money in there for jobs I needed to do… Hack Hack Hack.

I've regained self respect and the frustration of things.

My school e-mail went to zero the first day. I've hacked 1800 unread messages (most were junk) out of my inbox and another 3000 read messages have been either archived or trashed. I have another 1700 unread messages to go…it is clutter that is dragging me down and I will not allow it to.

Hack Hack…. I'm using inbox zero.

5. Solutions for getting started.

He says some people proclaim “inbox bankruptcy” and just e-mail everyone if it was important to remail it … I'm starting over.

I think this is the cowards way out, myself. I liked his idea of a dividing line. Marking a virtual line in the sand and saying… as of this date, I'm going to have a zero inbox. He then says take everything else and move it into a folder called the DMZ and hack at it daily, while keeping the inbox at zero.

What I did: This is a great idea, however, I'm afraid the DMZ would be ignored (out of sight out of mind.) So, instead, I have jotted a little note in my planner showing how many unread e-mails are in my inbox and every day it must go down by at least 100.

It has decreased much more rapidly, however. It is good to get rid of clutter and be on top of things.

6. How often do I check my e-mail
He suggests that you open your e-mail at certain times during the day. Get rid of the notifiers, don't keep it up all of the time. Close it out and focus and get things done.

I have been doing this for a while and it makes so much sense. It is so easy to ADHD ourselves into thinking we're getting things done. This is why I turned off my twitter notifications… I was to tempted to jump off on a bunny trail.

What I do: I open my e-mail 3-4 times a day at certain times and get it down to zero. I check twitter 2-3 times a day (unless there is a reason to check it more.) RSS reader once a day. Get rid of the tyranny of the urgent. Otherwise, you sit down at the end of the day and wonder where the time went.

Sometimes you've just got to sit down and get it done! I like to take the things on my list that upset me most and do them first. Get it done. That old e-mail that has been sitting there for six months is making you feel like a bad person… liberate your e-mail. Handle it. Take care of it.

Here's my classroom formula for how this works:

Inbox zero = Self Esteem 100

When I teach time management in January, I'm going to teach my students inbox zero. Such a great lifeskill.

Cool Tool Summary
Tool: Inbox Zero
Cost: Free, just some of your time to get started.
Use: A strategy for handling e-mail so that you are not victim to the urgency of e-mail.
Tip: When you first start using it, draw a line in the sand on a certain date and commit to always have your inbox to be down to that date at the end of each day. Check your e-mail at certain times during the day. Keep a list handy at all times to add to.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Cheryl Oakes October 20, 2007 - 11:48 am

Oh Vicki, you are so wise. I do need to spend some time and create some filters in my gmail to work for me!
Love it,

Brenda Muench October 20, 2007 - 4:45 pm

I’ve been using the “inbox zero” system before I even knew it exsisted. I don’t keep my desk clean but my files are neat and orderly all the way down to email! It’s a great way to live. When my desk starts to frustrate me I open my email and remember, “I am in control of this!”

Alexandros^ October 21, 2007 - 8:53 am

Cool tools, will check them. I am new to blogger and still haven’t figured how to use it.

profv October 21, 2007 - 4:10 pm

I would suggest developing the e-mail template for gmail to google labs. I check the labs function often to see what they are working on and I know they have a link where you can make suggestions.

This time management also works with correcting papers and assignments. I have had my students blogging this semester and I need to make comments and grade them on a regular basis. They feel that they should have comments immediately. However, that doesn’t give me time to really read through what they wrote. So I let them know I can see their blog (or wiki) but that I won’t get to correcting them until a specific date.

I could see using the same strategy especially when you are away. Those e-mailing often just want to know you have received the e-mail and when you can expect a response. You could use an instant reply during your especially busy times (ie. finals, midterms, grading periods) and let the writers know you will be responding within a certain period of time. The key is to give them a date far enough in the future that you can work through all your e-mails. Then they feel great when you respond earlier!

Megan Golding October 23, 2007 - 12:35 am

Definitely read Getting Things Done! It changed how I make to-do lists, manage email, and generally go about life. There’s also a great article about David Allen, author of GTD in the October issue of Wired Magazine.

I’d love to talk more with you about teaching Inbox Zero when you cover time management. I’ve taught some of the principles of GTD to one of my classes, but find that it doesn’t really fit the way my students live — online or off.

vcautin October 23, 2007 - 9:28 am

Thanks for reminding us of this strategy. I’m much happier now I have my inbox dealt with. It was getting really messy. I just need to find time to actually read the ones archived! :)

Mi blog

Brett November 19, 2007 - 4:35 pm


Great tips about implementing Merlin/David’s ideas. I had seen part of Merlin’s presentation at Google but I’ll have to go back and watch it a little more closely again. Your implementation ideas have motivated me to attempt again to control the flood of email that can drive me to distraction.


Steve Kelly September 24, 2009 - 2:10 am

I am so grateful for this discussion! As I begin to incorporate web 2.0 technologies into my lessons, I’m nervously aware that my already limited time feels like it’s going to be utterly taken over. An inbox zero will help me manage my time and help restore balance and sanity.

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