I had a dream. A dream that email could be fun again. A dream that, instead of wrestling with my inbox every day, we could share the same bus and get along just fine. Today that dream is realised and I’m going to share it with you. It won’t change the face of the planet or answer the Eternal Question (“have you seen my car keys?”), but it might save you a few hours a week.
The quest for inbox heaven
About two years ago I was up to my nostrils in email. I made a blueprint for Inbox Heaven, the perfect email setup that would let me:
- Check and send email from one place.
- Easily archive and retrieve email.
- Flag actionable mail but keep it out of my inbox.
- Access email from my mobile without loss of functionality.
- Not worry about how much it’s costing.
- Feel good about email again.
The experiments began
I spent years experimenting. I’ve used .Mac mail (now MobileMe), Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, Squirrel Mail, and some exotic stuff that would sound more at home on a Russian Space Orbiter (Laszlo Mail anyone?).
I’ve tweaked desktop mail apps like Thunderbird and Mail.app with all manner of widgets. I’ve tried 3 different versions of Outlook together with one version of Entourage, which made me break down and cry like a baby.
Shortly after what I now refer to as the Great Entourage Blackout of 2006, I sat down and had a chocolate HobNob. Then it clicked.
Inbox Heaven: one inbox for life
By the second year of messing around with email, I had already tried the right software. I just hadn’t used it the right way. Inbox Heaven is a combination of two things: really smart use of a Gmail account and the 3 Inbox Heaven rules.
Setting things up
Let’s get stuck in. This isn’t going to mess anything up, so if you don’t like Inbox Heaven after a couple of weeks, you can safely go back to whatever crappy system you were using before.
Get a Gmail account: You can sign up here. For Inbox Heaven, you need to be using Gmail in your browser only and not with a desktop mail client. Trust me. This will all make sense soon.
Point all your email accounts at Gmail: If you skip this step, the system won’t work for you. We’re going to get Gmail to check all of your email accounts: work, play, secret love notes; it’s all going to come to Gmail. A key idea behind Inbox Heaven is to start checking and sending mail in one place instead of seven. There are two options for getting mail into Gmail:
Forward mail from your other accounts to your new gmail.com address. This is the best option for most because you’ll receive mail a lot faster. Go ahead and set your other email accounts to forward to Gmail right now. If you don’t see a setting for this, use option 2 below.
Alternatively, Gmail’s free Mail Fetcher service will periodically retrieve mail from each account you specify. Carefully follow the instructions to set up Mail Fetcher here. Do this for all of your email accounts.
Set up sending from all your accounts: Now that you have all your mail coming to Gmail, we’re going to set things up so you can send email from multiple addresses and not just your Gmail one. To do this, simply follow the 'custom from' setup instructions. Repeat for all of your accounts.
Install Google Notifier: This makes the Gmail experience complete. Get Google Notifier here. It will act as your mail alert service and give you a handy shortcut for composing new mail.
Banish your old mail application: Remove it from from your Mac’s dock or PC’s shortcut bar. If you use webmail from some other provider, stop using it. It’s really important that you go to only one source (Gmail) from now on to send and receive mail. Just try it; you can always go back to your old ways if you decide it’s not for you after a few weeks.
Have a clean up: That’s it! You’re set up. If you’ve told Gmail to check your other accounts like I’ve insisted, or if you’re an existing Gmail user, you’ll probably have an inbox full of email right now. Once you’ve read this article, the first thing to do is have a good clean up to get your inbox empty. If that means spending four hours clearing 1,043 emails, then just do it. Find that time somewhere so you’ll be able to continue winning the battle against your inbox for good.
The three rules
These rules (once five, now just three) have been shamelessly borrowed and adapted from much smarter folk than me, notably Merlin Mann, whose Inbox Zero presentation is a must-see. The rules I use and recommend are as follows:
- Star and archive all messages that need action.
- Archive or delete everything else as soon as you’ve read it.
- Take action on your starred items twice daily. I recommend 11am and 3pm.
Email that needs starring must also be archived. This is really important. Actioning email is a two-step process. You should first star it. Then you should click the archive button. This removes it from your inbox and places it in your starred “to-do list”.
Starred email is your to-do list. The starred list you check twice a day is a to-do list for your inbox. It should only contain items that are actionable – they need a reply or a follow-up call or some other input from you.
Your inbox should stay empty. Forever. If you find your inbox is backing up with email, you’re doing something wrong. Once you’ve scanned an email, you should be doing something with it. Don’t leave it in your inbox to sort out later.
Unstar email when you’ve dealt with it. There’s a big button at the top of starred email that says “Remove Star”. Use it. Your starred email should only contain email that requires further action from you. If you’ve replied to someone, unstar that email. Only star it again if their follow-up needs action from you.
Stick with browser-based email only. It will feel odd if you’re not used to it, but keep trying. Detaching your inbox from your desktop is a key step towards making you more productive. It also makes you far more mobile; you’ll be able to comfortably check and send from all of your email addresses anywhere in the world with Web access, without changing your habits or learning new software.
To compose an email quickly, use the Google Notifier shortcut. Just click on the notifier icon, then “Compose Mail”. A new window or tab will open in your default browser.
Heaven is an empty inbox
I hope you find Inbox Heaven useful; do persevere with it, spread the word, and feel free to get in touch with your questions and comments. Oh, and if you find yourself faced with a tricky problem, it seems that chocolate HobNobs are the key.