I’m a firm believer in ‘inbox zero’. This is the idea that your ‘inbox’ should be exactly what the name suggests: a storage space for incoming messages. Your inbox should not be where you manage tasks, archive information, etc. The following tips are all based on the assumption that you are working toward this goal.
1. Filter & unsubscribe brutally
If you are serious about spending less time doing mundane tasks like checking email and more time doing meaningful creative work, or just having fun, then you should start at the root: how can you reduce the number of emails coming in to your inbox?
I am constantly amazed how people return from holiday and declare in dismay how they have hundreds of emails to go through and it will take them the whole day. For some this seems a badge of importance but it strikes me as a classic case of mistaking activity for productivity.
On any regular mailing I suggest that, if in doubt, you unsubscribe or filter it out completely. For mailings that you deem important, consider radding the website’s RSS feed to Feedly instead. If this doesn’t work for you, at the very least ensure you don’t read these emails while processing your inbox. Rather, you can add them to Pocket or Evernote to be read at a future point. Then archive the email!
2. Auto advance
I’m a big believer in batch processing as a path to focus and productivity. When you are batch processing emails in Gmail, the standard process is read, reply, archive, on to the next. However, Gmail’s default behaviour is to return you to the inbox when you archive a message, which adds an extra action for every single message and breaks the flow.
To address this, you can get grab the Google Labs feature called ‘auto-advance’ (go to setting > labs). Enabling this means that whenever you delete or archive a message, as I suggest you should do immediately as you batch process your inbox, you will be taken automatically to the next email needing your attention without returning to the inbox.
3. Undo send
This is another Labs feature I now find indispensable. One of the reasons why processing and then archiving email is so efficient is because it forces you to make snap decisions about each email (do I ignore, reply, or create a task for some future action, or reply?) The great thing about the ‘undo send’ feature is that it gives you 5 seconds to undo the ‘send’ command. This means that you can act on your instinct and bash out replies confidently. For some strange reason clicking the send button has an amazing ability to bring omissions and concerns to mind and when this happens you have 5 second to recall the message.
4. Template emails
Whatever your job, there are probably certain types of email that you send multiple times a month. Even if you have mastered touch typing (which all office workers should learn if they haven’t!), it is still very easy to spend 5 minutes drafting a simple email. You can cut out this time while also increasingly the quality and detail in your response by maintaining a set of email templates. These can be refined and improved over time.
I store templates in a set of Google Docs, but you can also use another Labs feature called ‘canned responses’, which allows you to add these quickly from within Gmail.
5. Use a signature
This may seem obvious but many people don’t use Gmail’s signature feature fully and feel that in order to be polite they must type out the information in the signature again on every email. If you send lots of emails you will end up typing out your name and bland phrases like ‘regards’ again and again. My approach is to (1) include your name in your signature and do not re-type this and (2) only add a sign-off when it adds substance to the communication, e.g. ‘thanks in advance’, ‘see you tomorrow’, ‘have a great weekend’.
Here is the format of signature I use: