My note-making and Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) application of choice is Obsidian, which has this really cool feature “Open Random Note” that I started using this week. My goal was to start elaborating on, atom-izing and organizing my notes better by working on one a little bit each day. I liked the idea of it being random because it would also re-surface notes (and therefore ideas) I might have forgotten I had created, kind of like how I use Readwise to send me random daily quotes from Kindle books I’ve read.

Today’s random note was one I started on “Inbox Zero”, an idea first put forward years ago by Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders site. The entirety of my note for this topic read “You should only ‘touch’ an e-mail once.”

As I started to flesh out this seedling (“new”) note and turn it into a sprig (“active, being developed and revised”) by including reasons for achieving Inbox Zero, I realized that a) I really needed this and b) I was currently doing a piss-poor job of it.

My updated note now read:

An idea by Merlin Mann that first appeared on his 43 Folders site in 2004, Inbox Zero is a method for maintaining a clean and empty e-mail in-box at all times. The goal is to process the items in your inbox immediately and not leave things hanging around in your mind causing you stress. One key to this method is to only “touch” an e-mail once. Read it, address it, delete it and move on. You should have other systems in place for handling the contents of messages – transfer the information to your to-do list/app, calendar, contacts, note-taking app, etc. where it can be dealt with in it’s appropriate context.

A year or two ago I had the bright idea that I could achieve “Inbox Zero” by creating rules that automatically move messages from certain senders into other mailboxes. I created three rules that each deposited messages into specific folders:

  • “Concierge” – Work-related messages, 6 senders
  • “Ads” – Advertisements from companies I had bought from before and wanted to continue to receive information from, about 20 senders
  • “Process” – Newsletters I had subscribed to, about 40 senders!

Flipping over to the Mail application from Obsidian, I saw that I currently had 453 un-read messages in my “Process” folder, and that only went back 3-4 months as I had previously deleted almost everything in a previous de-cluttering attempt. Each message was one I swore I was going to get around to reading “one of these days”, as there was a lot of good information I didn’t want to miss out on. I just wasn’t making the time to actually read these, I was “collecting but not consuming” (a topic I will visit in another post soon).

My actual Inbox had about 50 messages that I was saving because they had information that I needed – web site links, contact info, attachments, meeting/appointment schedule information, etc.

While revising the Inbox Zero note I realized how much this was actually bothering me, creating a small but measurable amount of stress as new messages came in and went unread or unprocessed each day, being automatically shuffled into a folder, mostly out-of-sight except for that little circle with the number in it that continued to increase each day, proportionate to the stress I felt.

Deciding enough was enough, it was time to “take action”. I started with the Process folder, deleteing all but the most recent message from each sender, committing to reading those today. There are about 25 to go through.

Next, I went to my inbox and per my note moved the information from each message I had been saving there into their appropriate system/app. Contacts were added, calendar and to-do entries were created, attachments were saved, and links were opened and bookmarked.

Finally, I deleted my rules. Initially I just disabled them, but thinking about it more I had to really commit to processing everything on a daily basis, and leaving the rules disabled I felt would create a temptation to just turn them back on.

The final step might be to unsubscribe from some of these if I just can’t make the time to read everything. One option is to save the articles I really want to read to my Instapaper account. In a way that is just shuffling the problem off to somewhere else, as I already have a large backup of articles there that I haven’t read. My plan is practice and refine my system to a) cut back and focus on what I feel is essential and b) To commit to reading more instead of browsing reddit and the other time-waster sites I frequent. It’s a work in progress, I just need to improve a little each day.