14 September 2010

The zero Gmail inbox for minimizing distractions

In a somewhat old (but still good!) post, Cal Newport explains how to mark all your incoming messages to Gmail as "read."  I also take the additional step of moving the messages to another label called "process." 

So now I never see anything in my Gmail inbox, which is great for minimizing distractions.  I can still go into Gmail and write messages, but without getting sidetracked by new messages in my inbox.  Having a "zero" inbox means that I'm not tempted to check new messages.  Now I can really stick to only checking my personal email once a day.  I wait until the end of the day to look at my "process" label and respond to the messages then.

I restrict my Gmail account to personal mail, but I think this method might also be helpful to people who receive work mail.

Here's how to set up the filter.
  1. Go to the upper righthand corner of your Gmail screen and click on "Settings".
  2. Click on the tab "Filters".
  3. Towards the bottom of the screen, click on "Create new filter".
  4. In the "From:" field, type hyphen followed by your Gmail address, for example, "-me@gmail.com". This will prevent Gmail from marking your sent emails with the new label we are about to create. So any mail sent to me@gmail.com will not be affected and go to your Inbox normally. You can include several emails, for example, in the "From:" field, type "-me@gmail.com -mom@gmail.com -dad@gmail.com".
  5. Leave all the other fields blank and click on "Next Step".
  6. Gmail asks you to choose some actions. Select the following: "Skip the Inbox (Archive It)", "Mark as read", and "Apply the label:". For the "Apply the label" box, click on the drop-down box and select "New label". Enter a new label and click "OK". I called mine "process".
  7. Click "Update Filter" and you are done.
Instead of going to your inbox, now you go to the "process" (or whatever you called it) label to see your new mail. You can assign labels or delete messages as you normally due. When you are done processing a message, simply remove the "process" label. You can use the shortcut "Y" or click on 'Remove label "process".'

The excluded email addresses ("me@gmail.com" in this example) will not be affected and mail from this addresses are delivered to your Inbox. So you can include important addresses in the excluded list, for instance: "mom@gmail.com". I know, for sure, that a list of hyphened addresses works, e.g. "-me@gmail.com -mom@gmail.com -dad@gmail.com". I have heard reports that using something fancier like wildcards and Boolean operators has problems.

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