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Victor Kropp

Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

— Mark Twain

The most valuable resource we have is attention. Every email, every push notification from all your favorite social networks distract you. And often it needs your reaction. We, humans, have limited willpower to make decisions throughout the day. So applying some routine to process email saves you mental energy for more important things.

The well-known Getting Things Done technique improves daily task management tremendously. However, it’s not easy at all to implement it in real life. Inbox Zero is a simplified version of this workflow chosen by many people, who drowned in an ocean of information coming from everywhere. I’d like to describe both workflows and shows benefits they provide.

Inbox Zero

Google Inbox

Google Inbox

Suggested initially for Gmail it heavily uses its Archive button. In Gmail archived messages are not deleted, they can be searched and viewed in All mail folder, but they don’t show up in your Inbox.

To start using this workflow, you archive all emails in your Inbox. Simply as that you got empty inbox or zero messages in the inbox, hence the name of the technique.

Next step is to turn off automatic email checker and notifications and read incoming messages only when you want and have time.

And most important, you never leave messages as unread in your mailbox, once you’ve seen them. Trash messages mercilessly if they don’t make any sense to you. If you can take action in less than 5 minutes, then do it immediately. It includes making an appointment, giving a call, filing an issue in a bug tracker, etc. If you need someone else to take a look, forward and delegate. If an email doesn’t require any actions from you, Archive it. If it does, then Star and Archive it.

Process messages one by one, don’t skip, all of them should have the same priority. Thus you will keep your inbox always empty. Powerful and easy to implement this workflow have some drawbacks still: it applies to email only, it requires other tools for reminders and tasks (though Google Inbox together with Calendar and Keep solve this issue); it uses single Starred items folder to keep track on all open items.

Let’s see how these problems are addressed in Getting Things Done.

Getting Thing Done

Getting Thing Done workflow consists of 5 parts:

  1. Collect (Capture)
  2. Process (Clarify)
  3. Organize
  4. Review (Reflect)
  5. Do (Engage)

Let’s take a closer look on each of these steps.

Collect (Capture)

To work efficiently, you need to collect all work items in one place. For a software developer, this would be: issues in a bug tracker, build or test failure responsibilities, pending code reviews, recent messages from team or company mailing list or internal forum and personal todos as well.

Process (Clarify)

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

— Albert Einstein

Once you collect all incoming notifications in a single view, you need to deal with them. Inbox Zero focuses on this matter. And it works here as well. You either respond, forward, defer, or classify it for a future reference.


Inbox Zero has a significant drawback of having a single folder for all open items. It is important to create several meaningful buckets for work items to overcome this problem. Some of them already exist: like Projects you’re working on with their issue tracker and wiki. You probably already have a calendar with all meetings and important dates. What naturally complements these are personal notes or todo items that to small yet for an issue in a company-wide system. Most often people use post-it notes for this purpose.

You also need some structure in the list of assigned requests. Either they are already in your system as Projects, Subsystems, Versions, Priorities, etc. or you create personal tags to distinguish issues. But the primary focus here should be put on making all things actionable: it must be clear what to do for each particular task. If you don’t know yet, it means that the next step would be to make a research on a given topic and this should be put on your list as the next action as well.

Review (Reflect)

You should revisit all items in your backlog on a regular basis. Weekly reviews on Fridays are great to keep attention on what’s going on. But some open items placed on “Wait for reply” or “Someday/Maybe” lists are also necessary to be reviewed periodically. When you have nothing to do with your current list, it’s a good time to check next actions on some blocked items.

Do (Engage)

Keeping things organized and in actionable items, helps you to find what to do next.


These simple routine helps me avoid much stress caused by endless stream of incoming information. Start with Inbox Zero and apply as much as possible of Getting Things Done and see how it will change your life.

I’m an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happen.

— Mark Twain

gtdinbox zero

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