Though specialists have devised myriad systems that purport to achieve Inbox Zero. I'm not that ambitious. I just want a system that keeps the number of unread messages in my inbox as small as possible, doesn't treat my inbox as a to-do list, and doesn't require me to spend hours sorting and archiving my mail.
In addition, a workable system has to be easy to implement: The more complex it becomes, the less likely I am to use it after the first month. It has to be easy to maintain, too: I have enough friction in my workflow without dealing with an email system that requires effort above and beyond standard email practices. And it needs to work across multiple clients: I typically see my messages on my iPad, my iPhone, my Macbook Air, and my Mac Pro--and I frequently access my email through Google Mail's Web interface, Mail.app, and other third-party applications. I need all of these programs and apps to sync, and whatever system I use must keep things manageable no matter where or how I'm checking my mail.
Over the years, I've tried numerous systems. Early on, I tried to build a hierarchy of folders that would afford me quick access to email messages relevant to a topic and would keep my inbox empty by consistently filing messages based on their relationship to a project or on their required action. Unfortunately, that tedious approach failed two of my goals: Coming up with the right organizational structure too much time; and filing each incoming message was too laborious.
Later, I tried tagging messages, but that operation ran afoul of my third goal: No true tagging system works on every platform. Both Tags and the Mail plugin MailTags use OpenMeta tags, which works well across my Macs. But those tagging systems don't work on the iPhone or in GMail. GMail's labels function similarly, but fail in applications like Mail.
The system I eventually settled on has been working for me for a couple of years now. It's a simple plan that involves minimal up-front work; and after you use it for a while, it's effortless to maintain. It follows the common workflow of filtering, processing, and reviewing email.
Only about 20 percent of my email requires any action on my part. So the first step in my system involves automatically filtering out as much irrelevant content as I can.
I do most of my filtering at the server level, using GMail's filters. When I come across an email message of a type that I know I don't need to see, I create a search using criteria that match it and then I turn that search into a filter. The goal of all of my filters is to move irrelevant email from my Inbox, often marking those messages as read. The email is still there if I search for it, but otherwise I'm not bothered knowing about it.
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