Zero Inbox

This is a blog post completely unrelated to the technical content I’m used to cover. But I’ve been asked so many times how I do handle my mail that I thought having a blog post will save me time to explain. So, if you are not interested, wait for the next blog post, which will be about Business Intelligence again!

First of all, I only use email. I’ve seen (and tried) several other technologies with their to-do list and workflow management. But the problem is that I work for many customers, with different standards, that it’s impossible to standardize on a single technology. The mantra today is to keep it simple, and my conclusion is to use only one system. So I use email, and only email.

Now, the problem is that email includes communication with customers, colleagues, friends. But it also contains newsletters, alerts, reports. And I also receive digests from forums, blog posts, Facebook messages, yammer communications, SharePoint alerts, and so on. It seems crazy, but in this way I have to handle email properly and I cannot afford losing or forget it. The side effect is that email is the most reliable way to get something done by me. I send email to myself from mobile phone to remember stuff. But if you try to contact me by SMS, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, or whatever else that does not forward me an email… well, sooner or later I will see that, but you might be out of luck. I receive an average of 150/200 emails every working day, with peaks of 300. I send an average of 30-40 mail every working day. It happens that I make something wrong and I lose one email. But this happens once a month, maybe less. It is a 99.97% reliability, and I can live with that. However, I can manage that thanks to methodology and tools.

Methodology: I use zero inbox. The idea is simple: at the end of the day, your inbox is empty. I have to admit that this does not happen every day, but just because I want to keep some message in evidence regardless of everything else. There are a lot of example over the web about how to reach that, but the principle is simple: triage often, process immediately or defer, but keep inbox empty or relatively small.

I’m addicted to Outlook and I use Office 365. It is very consistent and integrated. I tried Gmail with a personal account, but I never got it. I work with people who would never get rid of their Gmail inbox, whereas I’m in another area. Outlook allows me to define rules that work on the server. This is very important for certain messages (forum, mailing lists) that I don’t want to pollute my Inbox, because I will read them when it’s the right time during the day. No rush. Rules working server side are important when I check email from my mobile phone. However, I have to use the Outlook desktop, because I rely on a couple of add-ins that I absolutely need.

First of all, I have to remove messages from Inbox once I processed them. I don’t delete them, I archive them in a relatively lean folder structure (less than 100 folders in a hierarchical structure). Archive is very important to quickly find stuff I need. However, moving messages quick is important. I use SimplyFile. It has an algorithm that predict the right folder, and when the first choice is not the right one, you can browse the list or search in available folder names. I archive 80% of messages with a single shortcut in the keyboard, and the other 20% with less than 5 clicks on the keyboard. No mouse involved. Important for productivity. It also archives messages I send, so in the folder of a customer I have both messages received and sent. Very useful. The only problem is that when I triage and/or reply from my mobile phone, I know that I will have to complete the archive process on the desktop. But I don’t like services that do a similar service only online, because I want to be able to triage email when I have no connection. And the latency of a bad connection is also another big issue, and I travel a lot. So if you have some suggestion for an alternative service, please don’t lose time describing some online-only service because I will never spend time trying it. I’m happy with Outlook, I want the same experience on a mobile device.

Second, I have to defer mail that I cannot process immediately. Outlook has its own tools, but I prefer to use SnoozeIt. This tool simply moves a mail out from the inbox for a certain amount of time (that I can choose for every message). It could be one hour, one day, one week, one month. When it’s time, the message appears in the inbox again (marked as unread if you want). There are many other features (categorization, statistics, and so on) but I simply don’t care. I see the mail in the inbox when I supposed it would have been a good time. I am writing this blog post because a few months ago I had this idea, but I wouldn’t be able to find the time until I finished my last book about DAX. And finally that day arrived (well, you have to wait a few other weeks for the book because of final production processes, but the content is ready, now it is in the paging and proofreading stage).

And that’s it.

I have around 200 messages snoozed for a future date. This does not correspond to 200 tasks I delayed, most of them are tasks that I cannot do until a certain date, or just remainders to check whether a certain action has been done by someone else. Well, I have many tasks I delayed because I didn’t have time, but not 200!

I have been using this technique since 2007 using SpeedFiler (no longer supported I think). I moved to SimplyFile in 2010 because SpeedFiler did not support Outlook 2010. I adopted SnoozeIt since first beta in 2014. It works very well for me. However, I’ve seen that it is not good for everyone. Depending on your habits, you might love or hate it. I’m not trying to convince anyone using this technique, I’m just writing my experience because I think it will save me time when someone will see my empty inbox asking how is it possible.

DISCLAIMER: I regularly paid licenses of SpeedFiler, SimplyFile, and SnoozeIt I use. I do not receive any compensation by these companies and I will not get any fee for possible purchases made by blog readers. Feel free to add alternative products in the comments, provided it is your experience and not just advertising.