email productivity and Inbox Zero

Mailbox: Inbox Zero and email Productivity [An App of the Week Lesson Plan]

Email is a problem for so many of us. If I had been taught good habits early on, it could have avoided email overload and been more responsive many times when people needed a response. My students use gmail through our Google Apps for domains but often filters and other such things are a challenge for them. The Mailbox app is a great app for anyone who struggles with email. While all of my students don't have an iOS device, the principles of inbox zero fit everyone and I make sure all students understand basic filtering.

This lesson features:

  • Inbox Zero Concept
  • Spam and how to handle it
  • Phishing and What to Do
  • How to use filters and labels
  • Multi-tab inbox feature of Gmail
  • and how an app like Mailbox can help students manage their email and habits

Here, I'm just taking you through the points as I cover them. Depending upon this class, this could be a one day, but typically, I build this over the course of several days or weeks until their habits are established. This is sort of my notes as I teach this concept. Take your notes and cover the points as you want to. I've included resource videos for students but also for you in some cases. Remember, this is an overview of how I teach it, I'm not necessarily including each item to teach you about handling this, although if you want me to write posts tackling any of these, let me know and I'll share more content knowledge.

Optional “Teach Like a Pirate Intro”

I'm big on having hooks as students come into class. I usually start it the moment the first student comes into the room. This is music, videos, sounds, or something to set the stage. With this lesson, I use the Spam Video from Monty Python – it is usually over before the bell rings. When I do this, it is amazing how many are disappointed if they aren't there quickly. You don't have to do this, but it is hilarious (and also many kids haven't heard of Monty Python.) I do it at the beginning so it doesn't interrupt the flow, but you could also put this at the spam section instead. (See my review and interview with Dave about Teach Like a Pirate – awesome book!)

1. What does eMail let us do?

Start off with a discussion about what email is used for in school and the business world. Make a list on the board of the things that students send and receive email.

Also make sure they list annoyances with email (most of them get way too many updates from Facebook, Twitter, etc. (Point out at the bottom of those messages how they can unsubscribe to them. Most don't know this.)

I like to have students compare email to mail that comes in their mailbox. What needs to happen to physical mail: Opened, acted upon, shredded, thrown away, saved for later. We discuss the equivalents in regular email: open, acted upon (2 minute rule – if it takes 2 minutes, act), throw away (delete), shred (delete out of trash), saved for later (archive.) We also talk about email and what it lets us do.

2. Then, we compare email and a to-do list

Remember that your inbox is a very poor to do list as is. (Jill Duffy from PC Magazine said it well and we'll come back to this later.)

What does a to-do list help us to do? (Remember what to do that day, remember and act upon things)

What does email help us do? (Get information and send information easily, turn things in, reference information that we need to know, review information, it gives us items we need to do.)

Why does email make a poor to-do list? (We don't look at it all the time. We get too many notifications. We end up with too much email. We have too much email and the important is cluttered by junk and spam.)

Note: This is why I prefer a to-do list manager that takes incoming email. I use Nozbe and forward my emails to it and it will turn it into tasks, but for students, they could technically use the Mailbox app that I get to later in this lesson if they have an ipad or iphone. I also use Evernote to file my most important emails and have an email set up in Evernote to accept that. This is beyond most beginners but something I'd teach more advanced students or adults.

3. We talk about spam and junk email.

I write this on the board:

Email is free.

And ask:

“Why or why not?”

We have a discussion about junk mail and if it is free. What does it cost us?

It costs us our time. Time is the most valuable resource on this earth because it is nonrenewable. Once time is spent, it cannot be gotten back and is gone forever. No one has invented a time machine to give us more. We are finite and have each second for just a moment, so when we save time, we free ourselves up to do other, more important things. 

A Simple Explanation of Gmail

This cute cartoon is the BEST explanation of the features of gmail that I've found. At this point, I'll show this video to give us a framework for the conversation.

Then, we'll learn:

  • How we report spam (the exclamation point)
  • How we handle junk mail (unsubscribe or filter to delete) Also we mention here why it is not really an ok to mark a company spam that we subscribed to ourselves. We can always unsubscribe. They aren't spamming us b/c we gave them permission to add us to their email list.
  • How we handle phishing (use the “report phishing button”) But we also talk about how serious it is and how it is all our responsibility to look for it and report it quickly. Usually students have no phishing in their inbox so I'll have to pull some up from my personal gmail as I can always find an example in there.

Do not practice this on someone's email because it will literally report the person as a phishing or spammer. Treat it seriously and just point it out and have them point to it with their finger and check their neighbor. This is one time you find the button but don't use it. Talk about how these buttons are really used. (See the video below.)

4. Make your apps into a secretary.

We talk about what secretaries used to do when most business professionals had them. They opened mail, processed things, typed letters, etc. They did many repetitive tasks and helped people be more productive by filing and organizing things and serving as a gatekeeper to keep a person from wasting time.

Then, we talk about how apps can be a secretary for us and handle our junk for us. Here are the ways we discuss.

a. Unsubscribe

First, you can unsubscribe to mailings you don't want by clicking unsubscribe at the bottom – or – you can use an app like Swizzle Sweeper to unsubscribe from mailing lists. Go into Twitter and Facebook and turn off notifications – do you really need/ want them? Think about what notifications you want and turn off the ones you don't want.

b. Then, look at the Tabs on the top of Gmail or use Priority Inbox

You can drag emails into one of the tabs and train it, just remember that you need to check all of the tabs — and — when you check gmail on your ipad or smartphone those tabs aren't there so you'll get everything. Learn to train it for the tabs but be careful because sometimes important things can hide under one of those tabs.

c. Set up filters

Teach students how to set up filters for things they might want but may not want to read all of by filtering into a folder. Discuss basic folders and how they work but how you might want to wait on setting up too many folders if you're going to use Mailbox.

5. We discuss Inbox Zero


“how do you feel when things clutter your life? When your desk is a mess? Your locker is a mess?”

(Note that many kids are fine with a mess but we are trying to get at what happens when they have a mess.)

You want to be able to focus on what is important, so keeping your inbox clear helps you see exactly what is important and needs to be done. The kinds of things that come into your inbox are to-do's, things you need to file to reference later, appointments, and usually junk.

Because Mailbox will help us with todo's, reference material, and we've already discussed spam and junk mail, we need to talk about making appointments.

6. Adding appointments to email

While I don't have time in this lesson to go into Google Calendar, usually I've already taught Google calendar byt this time. I'll create an appointment and invite the whole class and ask them to go in and accept or reject the appointment. I tell them that we'll see later how the calendar function works in Google Calendar but to realize that when you have a request for an appointment that it is fastest to handle it at that moment and put it on your calendar – but that you should have a place for your calendar — Google Cal or in a planner of some kind.

Google has a an excellent set of instructions on their help site for Gmail and Google Calendar helps.

7. Now, the Mailbox app.

Now, I know I said that you aren't supposed to use email as a task list — BUT — if you have an app that lets you use it in this way, you can actually go back and let the app overlay a task list on top of your email. So, let me restate – -email by itself doesn't make a good task list, but if you use Mailbox, it can help your sort your mail and could make a simple task list. I actually just use this more for sorting as I don't handle personal mail at work and I can schedule things to come back to me when I'll be at home or working on Saturday.

The video below gives you an explanation. I wouldn't use this one with students. Instead, I hook up my ipad to my projector through my Apple TV and just show students how I use it. This app is supposed to be coming to Google Play soon.

The Mailbox app is a whiz but there is one thing it doesn't handle well — SPAM. This is why I always teach students how to deal with spam and create filters within gmail before going into Mailbox. They'll need to download and setup Mailbox so they can learn how to use it, so I typically show them with my app how it works to give a quick demo and then I turn them loose to handle their email and get to inbox zero using the app or method of their choice. (Mailbox is for iOS only, and although there are rumors of a Droid app, Boomerang for Droid should give you a lot of the functionality you want.


Mailbox App

You can swipe left or right to do different things with your email. Once you learn it, you can sort your email in a zip.

Swipe to handle email:

  • Swipe right: Archive
  • Swipe left: schedule to look at it a later time

Here we talk about scheduling — handle personal things when parents are around. When are you going to review material. Do you need to put something on your to-do list.

  • Add things to a list — this is a long swipe but I usually just hit the list feature — the lists make folders in Gmail so you can access these online. To Read, To Study, To Do are all things you can do. The one thing students need to know is that these items can be forgotten unless you write them down or look at them, but it does make it easy to find these items if they are on a list and you know to do them. I do know some students who use the Mailbox app as their to-do list but the flaw with this is that not every task comes in as an email unless you're going to email yourself for every task and then put it on a list – and that would be a bit cumbersome.

The thing I like about Mailbox is that it forces you to decide what you will do with each item and then, I stress what to do if something is small — handle it then and reply.

We close by talking about some of the stats on email and I also mention that many of the most successful people on earth (including a striking number of Nobel laureates) don't check email until later in the day. Email interrupts the flow of what you're doing so checking it once or twice a day is important. Also, we talk about how in college that professors can and will email all times of the day or night and how checking email daily is vital. Also, when they go to college (or work) they will get important emails concerning financial aid, bills, and more and have to be used to checking email daily.

Being brutal with what email you allow into your life is a very important lifeskill. If you're going to be a human being instead of just a human doing, must of that involves putting email it its place and these are just some tricks to help kids.

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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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Brad Patterson @ Evercontact March 28, 2014 - 10:08 am

Nice post, Vicky.

Mailbox is hands-down the best iOS app to get to inbox zero. Likewise, I’m a big fan of boomerang for gmail/outlook which allows you to get emails out of your inbox and back at the right time (or send you reminders if someone didn’t reply to your email).

Sanebox and are also great for cutting down the “newsletter / mailing list” BACn. Have you checked out Evercontact. Pretty cool for automatically updating all of your contacts, and I shared a few other inbox zero tips on our blog there: Hope it helps!

Cheers, Brad

coolcatteacher March 30, 2014 - 8:59 am

Thanks! I will check out ever contact! Thanks!Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher

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