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Using Multiple Inboxes and Keyboard Shortcuts with Gmail to Get to Inbox Zero

If you have hundreds or thousands of messages just hanging out in your Inbox, there is a better way to live my friend.

The steps I’ll demo below make use of Gmail’s web client, and it’s the same process I helped my wife implement to get her Inbox down from many thousands to the magical and totally achievable Inbox Zero.

If you’re still rolling with Sparrow or in love with Postbox, I probably won’t convince you to change; but it’s worth considering the switch. I haven’t used a mail client in years and I don’t miss it one bit. If you’re stuck with Outlook at work, I am so, so sorry.

GTD Basics and Your Email

The method I’ll demonstrate makes use of GTD or “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

You don’t need to dive in on his books or talks to get going, we’ll cover the basic foundations along the way.

We’re going to use Gmail’s labels to assign every email you receive to one of the following categories:

  • Actions (something you need to do)
  • Waiting On (something you don’t want to forget about, but get it out of sight and out of mind for now. This is probably the sort of message that’s taking up the majority of your Inbox space today. There’s nothing you can do about it yet, but you also don’t want it to slip through the cracks. But, when you have over 100 messages in your Inbox, that’s usually what happens anyway.)
  • SomedayMaybe (you might do this, probably not, but get it out of here for now and you’ll think about it again in a week or two)
  • Delegated (something that you’re responsible for following up to ensure it happened. More responsibility on you for the outcome than a “Waiting On”)

The Promised Land

When you’re all done, your Inbox will look something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 8.17.38 AM Setting Up Multiple Inboxes

“Wait What?”

What’s with those sections on the right? How did those get there?

Those are a hidden feature of Gmail and setting those up is the first thing we’ll want to do. This method is a variation of the one I first saw described by Andreas Klinger in a great post. He makes use of Gmails stars, bangs, and guillemets for labeling, but I prefer this route. Your mileage may vary.

Alright, let’s get those multiple inboxes created. Follow the steps, or follow along with the video below:

  1. Open Gmail
  2. Click the Settings cog in the upper right and select “Settings” Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 8.35.06 AM
  3. Under General, go ahead and turn Keyboard Shortcuts On. You’ll want it later.
  4. Go to Labs
  5. Enable “Multiple Inboxes”Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 8.37.31 AM
  6. Go to Inbox
  7. Uncheck “Social”, “Promotions”, “Updates”, and “Forums” if any are selected.
  8. Go to Labels
  9. Scroll down and click “Create new label”
    Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 10.44.21 AM
  10. Create a new label called Actions and click “Create”
    1. Repeat that step to create labels for: Waiting On, Someday, Delegated
    2. You should have created four labels and should see the followingScreen Shot 2015-01-25 at 10.47.39 AM
  11. Now Click Save. This will take you back out to your Inbox, but you aren’t ready just yet. Go back to the settings cog and click Settings
  12. Go to the new “Multiple Inboxes” tab that should appear to the far right!
  13. We need to tell Gmail which messages should go in these new Inboxes. Use the image below to update your settingsScreen Shot 2015-01-25 at 10.50.06 AM
  14. Choose “Right side of the inbox” for Extra Panels Positioning
  15. Click Save.

Triage Your Way to Zero

Now you should be looking at an Inbox full of messages and four empty panels on your right.

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 10.54.12 AMWell big fat lot of good this has done you, right?

Not to worry, this is where the fun begins!

Now you can start to actually deal with those hundreds of messages that are sitting in your Inbox either collecting dust, or pestering you and making you feel guilty every time you see them.

I wish I could just demo my actual Inbox; instead, I’ve loaded up this sample account with a couple dozen emails that need to be handled.

Handy Dandy Keyboard Shortcuts to Keep in Mind

  • ? – Shortcut List
  • x – Select
  • e – Archive
  • o – Open Conversation
  • l – Show Labels
  • gi – Back to Inbox (from reading an email)
  • ` – Move Cursor to Different Inboxes
  • j – Older Conversation
  • k – Newer Conversation

Godspeed

Ok. There you go. Now you can get on with the hard (and fun) work of getting down to Zero. Just remember the basics:

If an email is counting on you, then its an Action.

If it’s in someone else’s court, you’re Waiting On.

If you’re game, but not this week, then it’s Someday/Maybe.

And if you’ve passed it along but you’ve got some skin in the game and need to stay invested, you’ve Delegated.

You can do it! Inbox Zero is just around the corner!

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  1. Great tut and video, thank you.

    Having set up a similar system myself, I realized that I’m either missing something or something is very dysfunctional with the system. If the messages live in the other inboxes regardless of their archive status, is the only way to get rid of them to delete them? How do we create a similar “archive” method for those inboxes?

    -if we do nothing, there are redundant copies in our regular inbox.
    -if we filter all incoming mail with those labels to bypass inbox (=defaulting to archive), it’s still stuck in those other inboxes till it’s deleted.

    the only other alternative is to create a SECOND archive label and send all the other inbox emails to it, but there’s no easy shortcut to apply a custom filter… So for now, the solution is pretty useless. Love to hear your thoughts!

    • Michael,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and I have good news! :)

      When an email is living in one of the other inboxes – let’s say it’s in the “Waiting On” inbox because it has that label – as soon as it no longer has that status, you just Remove the Label and then it is out of sight! No need for an additional archive method at all.

      Try it out! Go to an email that is in one of your other mailboxes and you’ll see the labels that are applied to it appear as tags just to the right of the email title. If you click the “X” in the tag, the label is removed, the email remains archived (it already was) and it no longer appears in any of your inboxes. Problem solved!

      You can also do this quickly within the email using the following keyboard shortcut:
      – L (lower case works, just wanted it to be more legible here) this will open the Labels menu
      – Start typing the name of the label you want to remove
      – Hit enter when that’s the only label remaining in the menu

      Voila!