How to hit Inbox Zero every time you check email

It’s been over a decade since I have been practicing the Getting Things Done methodology. Getting Things Done is essentially a productivity movement that was started by David Allen. There are a lot of concepts that you learn, some of the most important ones are around Inbox Zero and Context.

Dealing with email is The Struggle. For me it’s been one of the biggest struggles I’ve dealt with. At Microsoft, email is a fire hose. And if you don’t figure out how to tame it, it will eat at you and make you less effective.

It’s unlikely you will read this and adopt a methodology that works tomorrow. It’s taken me a decade of practice and trying to get here. However, I do feel that some of the concepts I’ve found and written about below will get you on your way. From that point on it’s up to you to figure out if you get enough value from an ongoing investment in Inbox Zero.

10 years ago, email was done on PC and usually in specific locations like “Work” or “Home”. Today, we carry computers in our pockets and can do email triage any time we care to. But email has also followed us around every where we go.

What once was a novelty (You’ve got mail) is now The Struggle.

I’ve found that if you can end each day with zero messages in your inbox, you’ll enjoy the time you have with your family more. You’ll sleep better at night. You’ll enjoy your vacations more. You’ll improve your quality of life. This is something worth investing in as it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

However, the Getting Things Done methodology hasn’t really kept pace. The world is different. And your secret weapon is your phone, a great mobile email app and taxonomy for your energy level.

I spent a few days in December 2014 updating my outdated methodology for email triage and since January 1, 2015 I have hit Inbox Zero every single time I check my mail. No matter the device. And most email sessions on my phone lasts under a minute.

I clear my inbox every single time I check my email.

I’ve experienced slow weeks, hard weeks, gone on vacations and not done any email on those vacations. My inbox has remained at zero every time I’ve engaged with my email client.

I don’t know many people that experience this. And you know what? It’s quite easy. You just need a workflow and discipline. A couple of small changes and you can do the same.

And I can go a whole day just using my phone and get all my email done. I don’t find this awesome or anything, but possible. And it makes me productive anywhere. How do I do this? Well I have a few things. A phone with all day battery life, an awesome mobile email client (Outlook), and apps like OneNote, Evernote, Office Mobile and the Apple HDMI lightning connector mean that I have a real laptop replacement in my pocket. I carry around a tool that does as much as a PC. That’s the biggest change in 10 years.

Prior to this, I might hit zero once a week. It was a constant battle that I lost each day only to have a half victory and no sense of accomplishment for even trying.

The feeling from this renewed experience has been life changing for me. And I put very little effort into processing email now. It doesn’t weigh heavy on me. I put more energy into my work product. Which is not email.

What I have done is put each email into an energy folder. That is, I triage my email into different buckets that I can do depending on my mood, time, and attention. I don’t worry about how many emails are in that folder. I just put them there and drive those to zero when I can make the time.

In a world where you can do your work from anywhere, the thing that varies the most is how much attention you can afford. And what kind of mood you are in. Building a system about these realities was the biggest breakthrough in my methodology.

Now lets talk details.

Setup

First you need an email client. I use Outlook on a PC and Mac. My email is in the cloud. And I use Outlook on my iPhone and iPad. I also recommend a read it later app like Pocket.

Triage

First, and most importantly. When in an email is in your inbox, you only read it once. Not twice. Once. Read that again. Once.

If you violate this rule, then you may as well give up. It’s the “leave it in my inbox and mark it unread” that gets you in trouble. The reason we read an email more than once is that we don’t know what to do with it. For me, this has been a struggle and I’ll explain why in a second.

Every email has an action

  • Delete it - not very email needs a reply. Delete without prejudice
  • Do it - reply to the email if it takes under 2 minutes. Just Do it then and there.
  • Archive it – place in your archive folder
  • Delegate it – it’s not your’s to follow up on so assign it to someone else to do
  • Defer it - either it’s going to take more than 2 min, or you can’t do it now so you’ll defer it

This stuff isn’t that complicated and comes straight from Getting Things Done. When I started using this framework 10 years ago it was a great framework. The biggest challenges I faced were sticking to the “only read once in the inbox” rule and having a good framework for Deferring emails.

Getting Things Done teaches you about Deferring and using physical contexts. In this mobile first world, that’s not going to cut it.

Contexts

Instead you’ll think of Contexts based on energy or attention. I first read about this from a friend and have since read an article on Simplicity is Bliss that goes into a lot more detail than I care to.

Energy simply refers to the level of attention you can devote to the tasks. We can do email from anywhere and so we should be able to 100% rely on our phones.

I use the following contexts for email triage:

  • @Quick Hits – takes 2-5 minutes to get done and required little to no attention. Normally I would just do this, but I may not have the time as I’m walking to a meeting.
  • @Full Focus - Generally I need to have time blocked off or at least 10 minutes so spare. This will include reading and responding with feedback, reviewing material, writing a lengthy response to an email
  • @Brain Dead - stuff that is easy to do but I can’t do it right now and requires no energy. Examples include filing an expense report, schedule a meeting, etc. It needs to get done, and I can do it without much thought
  • @Someday – I may or may not ever get to this. No guilt.
  • @Thinking – Ideas I may collect to generate new insight, update strategy, formulate an idea
  • @Waiting For/Agenda – for each person, I create a context and then assign stuff to this context that I need to follow up on (because I’ve deferred it) or because I need to talk to someone about something. When I meet with the person I will go through their folder and look up the relevant email.

The Process

I’ve mentioned how you can and should use your phone to process and triage email. That means you can’t rely on any features that aren’t available from any endpoint. In the past I relied on things like categories and tasks and project lists to manage triage. Which meant then when I used my phone to do any email I was actually throwing a wrench in the whole system. I ended up reading emails more than once, leaving stuff in my inbox to “triage” later on my PC and so on. My system had huge gaps in it.

So my contexts are simply folders. If there is one thing that works everywhere it’s folders. So rather than get fancy, I move messages into folders, and then I go through some of those folders a few times a day.

Remember, only look at an email once in your inbox, and then act on it once. At that point your triage is complete and you are free to do anything else, including process email.

Act on email

I have a folder for every context underneath my inbox. For every email I decide on the Action: Do it, Delete it, Defer it, Archive it, Delegate it. That’s it. Every time I check my email, I clear out my inbox to zero. I do this every single time I check my email. No exceptions.  Nothing gets read twice or gets marked unread. Inbox Zero does not mean you have done anything yet, it just means your mind is now clear from distractions… where this behavior if often the norm when a new email arrives.

I’d add that I get a lot of links to read. I highly recommend a “read it later” service. Anytime I see a url that is worth reading, I throw it in my “read it later” service which I can do anywhere. I happen to like Pocket.

Quick Hits

Once I finish with the Inbox, and I have some time, I go to the Quick Hits folder. Then I work on that till it gets to zero. I usually read oldest to newest and process all the email.

Full Focus

When I’m done with that, I go to Full Focus and clear that out. Since I can get most Inbox triage and Quick Hits stuff done anywhere, that’s what I do. For Full Focus stuff, I just block time on my calendar. I have 2 hours on Monday and 2 hours on Friday to go through stuff. That’s where I curate my task list and project list and also think about what I need to get tone that takes calendar time.

I don’t care if there are dozens of things in my Quick Hits and Full Focus folder. Because I can only get through them in as much time and energy as I have. But my Inbox is empty. Not full of stress and the unknown.

Calendar

Your Calendar and Task List are now tools in your drive to actually do work. Email drives two things into my calendar:

  1. Time to get through my Full Focus folder – 2 hours on Monday and 2 hours on Friday cover a lot of ground for me. I will sometimes allow this time to be scheduled but I generally guard it
  2. Time to work on projects – I block time to do specific things that are often generated via email workflow

The rest of the time I do “email sprints” using my phone. I can power through a few emails while waiting in line for lunch, or waiting for someone to figure out how to use the projector in a meeting. There are lots of 2-3 minute spots in the day waiting for you to be productive.

Tasks

Any kind of project that I identify in email goes into my task list (I use Todoist . I then Archive the email.

Some Gotchas

I’ve found that it helps to organize your emails by conversation. One handy feature that Outlook has (Desktop and Mobile) is that you have filed something in another folder, like Quick Hits, and a new message in that conversation comes in, you can see that you have older messages in those folders. This helps you know where to file those messages quickly.

Zyliss Easy Spin Salad Spinner – 5 stars

I’m not sure if everyone owns a salad spinner, but we’ve owned one for as long as I can remember. Since I was little, salad has been a core part of almost every meal. And we eat our salad after our main course. Kind of like desert.

I never really though much about this device. For almost a decade we just brought it out, used it, and then washed / rinsed it. One day I noticed some mold. Upon inspection I found that there was tons of mold inside the cover of the device. After years of washing, water would get in and never dry out. Kind of like your front loading washing machine  If you don’t know you need to leave that door open other wise there is mold in places you can’t see. And run the sanatize cycle with a cleaner every so often. We do both.

Anyway, it turns out that inaccessible crevices + water will provide a happy medium for mold to grow. Eeeew.

I went to find a better salad spinner. I noticed the Zyliss Easy Spin Salad Spinner at our local cooking store.

The main attraction to me was:

  1. It’s completley clear – no where for anything to hide
  2. It can be completley dissasembled – the lid can be taken apart and cleaned
  3. It’s dishwasher safe

You can see in this photo how the lid comes apart

We’ve had this spinner for over a year now and it looks functions like the day we got it.

The product comes in clear and green and in two sizes. We have the large size and we use this almost every day.

5 stars! ★★★★★
Exceptional. A spectacular product.

Battery Recycling Container – 4 stars

This is a bit of a strange product to review, but I’m doing it anyway.

Our household uses a lot of batteries. Where we can, we’ll use rechargeable batteries. I’ve written about this before.

But there are many good reasons to use good old batteries. We have things like garage door openers, security devices, and some items that really just prefer alkalaine batteries.

When finished with a battery you are supposed to recycle them, not throw then in the trash. This is also true for many small electronics and other such products. To solve this problem I purchased this brown plastic recycle bin to store all our battery and electronic recyclables. Once a year I’ll take it to the hazardous waste dump or an electronics recycling location.

I hate running out of batteries BTW, and recommend getting a box of these Maxell 48 pack AA batteries and keeping them at home.

The Battery Recycling Bin, 2.4 Gallon can be purchasd from Amazon. They are often out of stock but it appears they have a bunch now. It’s $26 and we keep ours in the garage. The kids know about it and so when they are discarding batteries they know where to throw them.

★★★★☆

Great. Worth purchasing.

Bose SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones – 5 stars

I’ve been on the market for some wireless headphones for a while. I already have the amazing noise canceling headphones (Bose QuietComfort) which are reserved only for air travel. So I determined to find a great set of wireless headphones to acquire.

It’s important to know something about wireless headphones and noise cancellation. Each technology brings with it a set of tradeoffs. You should be aware of this. A reason I don’t combine both wireless and noise cancellation is you are making the worst set of tradeoffs by taking both at once in the same headphone.

So, I have a pair of headphones that I only use for flying. They have the best noise cancellation technology available (and are pretty much renowned for this). But noise cancellation comes at the cost of audio quality.

And guess what? Wireless headphones comes at the cost of audio quality. But not for the same reasons as noise cancellation, for different reasons. Wireless headphones generally use Bluetooth, which can be a mixed bag.

I got a pair of wireless headphones to mainly to keep by my bedside. I wanted a headphone I could use to do some lightweight video and music listening while my wife was sleeping (or while she wasn’t, but to avoid disturbing her). I was looking for a head phone that:

  • Was “on ear” – in ear headphones are uncomfortable and fall out
  • Small – don’t want some huge thing
  • Great battery life
  • Good controls and usability
  • Can be used with more than one device
  • Portable – I can take with me on vacations or use around the house

I settled on the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones based on a number of reviews and factors.

They look great


They travel light, are super compact with a great case


They:

  • Are really light, which is important
  • Have 15 hours battery life – and can be used with a regular cable if the battery is dead
  • Have Great controls for volume and pause/playback
  • Can be paired with 8 devices and used simultaneously with 2 devices at once (Phone and iPad).

I’ve had them for 2 weeks now and am super happy. I can grab them from my nightstand and by the time I’ve put them on my head, they have automatically paired with my phone and iPad. I can see the battery status in the iPad notification bar which is neat.

It’s a wonder that I can just put them on my head and they work. No fumbling in bed for a cable, no need to plug in. No need to decide which device I want to use! It works with 2 at the same time.

It’s honestly hard for me to explain what it’s like using wireless headphones. It’s weirdly awesome. It reminds me of the first time I used WiFi on my laptop. It was so freeing.

Like anything, this technology will just continue to improve. So what I recommend today will probably not be the same in 2 years. But for now, the compromise you have to make to have freedom from a wire for audio is almost none.

Welcome to the future.

Bose SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones – 5 stars

★★★★★
Exceptional. A
spectacular product.

Menu Dining Bottle Grinder – 5 stars

Everyone should have an awesome salt and pepper grinder. When I was a kid we had this small Peugeot Pepper mill. It seems as if it was always out of pepper. Over the years I’ve seen and tried a number of pepper and salt mills. I’ve never really found one that’s made me happy. One that was big enough to store a LOT of pepper. Something that didn’t leave a mess every time I put it down.

Not to long ago I was browsing my favorite store in Houston, Kuhl-Linscomb and saw a funny looking pepper and salt mill. Seriously, if you are ever in Houston, you need to check this place out. It’s a Sur-La-Table meets Design Within Reach. Anyway, I discovered these interesting looking salt and pepper mills from a Danish company, Menu.

These funny looking salt and pepper mills are standing upside down. Why? So that you never have to deal with a mess! And that base in the bottom? It holds an incredible amount of peppercords and salt. I fill these up 2-3 times a year.

I seriously love these things. They are a joy to use. 5 stars.

★★★★★

Exceptional. A spectacular product.

Logitech Ultrathin Magnetic Clip-On Keyboard Cover – 4 stars

My wife hasn’t really ever traveled with a laptop. She does however wish she could do some light work (editing word docs, presentations, and doing some email). A few months ago we decided to get her an iPad Air (before the Air 2 came out). Since she can run Microsoft Office, Remote Desktop and email on her iPad it turned out to be a great light travel companion. What was missing though was some kind of a keyboard.

There are dozens of bluetooth keyboards out there. They come in all shapes and sizes. I was looking for something that wouldn’t make the iPad look like a crazy laptop, or add a lot of bulk. That’s when I noticed the Logitech Magnetic Clip-On Series.

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This keyboard comes in two models and two colors to match the iPad.

Basically, there is a model for the iPad Air 2 and for the iPad Air (original). The difference is that the iPad Air model has a built in rechargeable battery that last 3 months and the iPad Air 2 model has non rechargeable batteries that last 2 years. I don’t really understand why they differentiate that way, but they do.

The cases have some great features though. They magnetically attach to the iPad, they automatically wake/sleep when you want to use them, and they have a nice flexibile stand that allows you to tilt the iPad a bit.

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Keyboard support on the iPad is pretty good actually. You can do a lot from the keyboard such as switch apps, search, cut, copy, paste, control media, volume, take a photo etc. Application support for keyboards is still nascient. Apple’s apps all do a great job, and you’ll find some third party apps do and some don’t support keyboards.

This keyboard is by no means a full size keyboard designed for hours of typing. But it’s a remarkable portable keyboard that’s perfect for what my wife needs.

The iPad Air 2 version gets mixed reviews on Amazon. Honestly, I think people have pretty whacked expectations of what a small keyboard like this should be able to do. Personally, I find this keyboard to be minimalist and great for light typing. On a vacation, it’s a great balance of form and function.

Therefore I give it 4 stars. Why not 5? Well it’s not perfect. The magnetic latch is a bit frustrating at times, and the tilt mechanism is a bit funky.

★★★★☆
Great. Worth purchasing.

For me personally, I have another keyboard to review, the Logitech Key-To-Go which is awesome.

How I make Coffee

In this article I’ll cover how I make coffee. I’ve tried a number of different brewing techniques over the years, and feel that I have finally settled on 1-2 brewing methods that really works well.

For starters, I should mention that my coffee requirements are as follows.

  • Brew coffee for Omar and Lora separate – we wake up at different times
  • 1 cup in the morning before heading to work

On the weekends we like to make enough coffee for 4 cups (2 each) as we spend a couple of hours in the morning relaxing in our jammies with our kids being lazy. My favorite part of the week.

With that in mind we have been through the following:

Jura Capresso ENA 3 – Super Automatic Expresso Machine. We used this machine for 5 years. It was programmed to make an Espresso with 8oz of hot water, called a Cafe Crema. Sort of like an Americano. The coffee this machine produced was always “good” – certainly better than a pot of coffee sitting on a burner. But the coffee was never hot enough for my taste. Could not beat the convenience.

Espro Press French Press – The best French Press I’ve ever owned. It’s a vacuum sealed carafe with a double filter that ensures that grounds stay out of your coffee. Personally I’m not a fan of the “gritty” french press taste. I’ll admit that on occasion I like this, but not for my morning or weekend cup of joe. Also I was not a huge fan of the cleanup. We no longer use this.

Aero Press – A lot of folks are fans of the Aero Press. It’s a great little one cup brewing system. It’s strange looking for sure. Looks like a plastic plunger. You can’t beat the price and it produces a good cup of coffee. It’s also easy to travel with. However, there are nearly infinite ways to make coffee with this thing, and the instructions it comes with are pretty useless. I settled on the following brewing techniques from Blue Bottle or Stumptown (the inverse technique).


The history of the Aero Press is pretty fascinating. It was invented by the guy who came up with the Aerobie Frisbee.

Hario V60 – The Hario ended up being my preferred brewing method. It’s a pour over device. You place it over your mug, place in 16-20g of ground coffee, and pour in 220g of 200 degree water. Ideally you bloom the coffee for 30 seconds.

Like anything, when paired with fresh beans, a great grinder, and kettle, this is the purest form of coffee drinking. For the first time in my life I could taste all the flavors in each single origin coffee we get from Blue Bottle. Coffee from Africa tastes different than coffee from Costa Rica.

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I purchase the Hario unbleached filters to go along with this.

So for me, this is the gold standard of making coffee. But it’s not very efficient for making 4 or more cups. It’s great for 1 cup.

Before I discuss our final coffee device, I wanted to briefly cover Beans, Water, Grinding and Measurement.

Beans – For over a year we’ve been getting our beans shipped to us by a company called Tonx which was purchased by Blue Bottle. We have the single origin subscription and get two 8oz bags of coffee every 2 weeks. They are roasted right before shipped, and we grind them right before using them. During that time we store them in an air tight container – we use the AirScape  which you can get from Crate & Barrel or William-Sonoma.


Grinder – A good quality grinder is a must. Hand grinding works well for a single cup and a single drinker. For anything more, a simple high quality grinder is an investment worth having. The Baratza Encore is the gold standard high quality grinder. I’ve tried a lot of grinders and I can tell you look no further. This thing weights a few pounds as it has a beefy low RPM motor. It’s quiet and it grinds well. And it’s made in Seattle.

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Kettle – The Bonavita 1-Liter Variable Temperature is the best for a pour over system. Don’t even look at anything else. This thing rocks. We dial it in at 200 degrees, turn it on, and minutes later it’s done. The goose neck allows you to control the pour so you don’t scold anything and you can perform a proper Bloom.

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Scale – A lot of cooks rely on a scale these days. I believe a good quality scale is an essential kitchen gadget. This is true for coffee where it’s incredibly useful for measuring coffee and water. I also forgot that when it comes to the metric system, a gram of water is equal to a ml of water. So this makes it easy to deal with ratio of coffee to water. A scale I happen to like a lot for pour over coffee is the Hario Coffee Drip Scale/Timer. It only measures in grams, and it has a timer with auto shutoff. I usually use 18g of coffee and 220g of water. I place the mug on the scale, the pour over V60 on the mug (with a wet filter) and zero the scale. Then I add 18g of ground coffee, zero again, 18g of water to bloom, wait 30 seconds and then add the remaining 202g of water. If I got it right, the scale will read 220g when I’m finished pouring water. Then I let gravity do the rest.

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So, now that we’ve got the pour over technique and equipment out of the way, what did I settle on?

A quick note btw. It was the advent of the pour over system, and the quality of the coffee that cause my wife and I to realize that years of drinking from the Jura Super Automatic was not all that great. The V60 produced such an incredibly good perfect cup, that we could not deal with the cardboard taste of a cafe crema. I was not in search of anything to replace this, that is, until I read a blog post from my friend Kelsi.

Wilfa Precision Coffee Maker - This guy just arrived state side and Williams-Sonoma is the only place you’ll find it. Think of this device as an automated pour over coffee machine. It’s in the same league as the Technivorm Moccamaster, but less “coffee machine” and more “pour over” machine.


This thing is a work of art. I purchased it in black. It lives up to the hype. We can make 8 cups of coffee that tastes nearly as good as coffee from the V60. I’ve measured the temperature a few times and it’s in the 195 – 200 degrees range. It does not Bloom the coffee unfortunately, but it does have a neat volume flow control that allows you to control how long the water stays in contact with the beans. And it has a clever carafe with markings on it for the amount of water and coffee to use. For example, 250ml / 17g, 500ml / 33g etc. This makes for simple coffee production early in the morning.

I’d recommend this article to learn more. The neat thing about the Wilfa is that you can use it with a Chemed 8 cup or even my Hario V60, or I can use it with the built in cone holder and a single cup vs the carafe. It’s pretty versatile. The way I think about this machine is that it’s basically a kettle, with a water dispenser that goes into a custom cone and carafe. It also has a heating element that will keep a pot warm for an hour. Obviously this will cause a decrease in quality, but can come in handy.

That’s it. This is a great invention. The only thing that may top this is the Ratio Coffee machine. But at twice the cost, I’m not sure how much better it can be.

I debated for a while what rating to give the Wilfa. There are a few things about it that separate the coffee from the Hario V60. So in the end, given it’s not quite as good as a cup from the V60, I’m giving the Wilfa 4 stars.

★★★★☆

Great. Worth purchasing.