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Reach inbox zero with the Getting Things Done three-step workflow

Mailbutler discusses how the Getting Things Done workflow can help you reach inbox zero, organise your emails, and help you manage your time effectively.

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15 minutes

    By James

    James has seven years' experience as a Content Marketer, bylines on Left Foot Forward, Submittable, and INOMICS, and a Master's in History. In his free time he likes to read, play guitar, and write for his personal blog.

    Getting Things Done is a tried-and-tested productivity system that helps you keep your life and work commitments under control - which of course includes email management.

    If you're constantly overwhelmed by email and never-ending tasks, this is the guide to help you regain control of your inbox and to put your task management on auto-pilot!

    It's predominantly a way of achieving inbox zero, which is in turn a way of managing your inbox to save you time and help you be more productive.

    So without further ado, let's check out exactly what Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done are and how you can use them in your work life.

    What is inbox zero?

    What is inbox zero

    Inbox zero is a method in email management suitable for Outlook, Apple Mail, Gmail, or almost any other email client. It’s all in the name – you should have no emails (or almost no emails) left in your inbox as a result.

    The approach originates from the eponymous book by Merlin Mann, a well-known productivity expert, which was published back in 2014. There are five actions that Mann recommends following to achieve inbox zero:

    • Delete: get rid of old emails that serve no further purpose. 
    • Delegate: if someone else can answer the email better, forward it to them. 
    • Respond: respond immediately to emails and not keep them open. 
    • Defer: move the messages that will take some time to respond to a separate category.
    • Do: make sure you stay on top of emails that require a timely response. 

    Check out his Google Tech Talk:

    Following this approach especially helps those who are running a business that relies on email communication and regularly emails multiple clients. So how can you maximize your chances of reaching inbox zero? Our favorite way is by using GTD.

    What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

    Getting Things Done is a productivity framework for organizing and tracking tasks and projects, developed by business productivity consultant and author David Allen.

    The original book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, has been published in over thirty languages globally. The GTD system, when implemented correctly, is a foolproof method that lets you keep track of what you need to do, should do, or should consider doing.

    What makes GTD so special?

    Unlike most productivity methods, GTD is not about time-saving hacks or quick fixes. Instead, GTD focuses on being present and mindful as well as confident that your current action is the correct one.

    Many of our tasks and duties, such as creative thinking, strategies, and ideas, do not necessarily take our time, but they take up a lot of room in our brains.

    What does this mean? When we have multiple tasks in mind, we lack the mental space to actually focus on any of them. This causes us to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and eventually discouraged from working on important tasks.

    But when you have external storage for ideas, your brain is no longer clogged by future or past to-dos. This leaves you a clear headspace for what you should do right now.

    When your mind is clear, you are calm, focused, present, and able to maintain a high level of awareness. In an age of constant information flow, Getting Things Done is not just about getting things done, but meaningfully engaging with what you do.

    The five steps of the Getting Things Done workflow

    What's great about GTD is that it’s flexible and suitable for any kind of workflow. It doesn’t matter what tools you use, as long as they allow you to go through the following steps:

    1. Capture everything that has your attention: to-dos, ideas, recurring tasks, etc. You can use pen and paper, a to-do app, or anything that helps you stay organized. Capture everything so you don’t have to think about it until it’s time to do it again.
    2. Clarify what you have to do: break down your ideas into actionable steps so there is no barrier in doing the task. If the action can be done right away, you can already get it done immediately!
    3. Organize your clarified items, and rank these items by category and priority. You can also assign due dates and set reminders so you will follow up on them.
    4. Review: with your tasks sorted and ready to be completed, don't forget to take the time to review your system regularly and reflect on your list. Look over what your next action should be. If you have organized your list correctly, you should be able to pick upcoming tasks efficiently. If a task is still vaguely defined, break it down further. Then give your list an in-depth review to see where you’re making progress, where you need to adjust priorities and how it’s working for you.
    5. Engage and get working! Your system is now set up and your tasks have been broken down into manageable chunks with varying priorities. You can now comfortably engage with your work knowing what all your commitments are and that what you’re doing right now is the best thing to do.

    Organize Your Inbox

    Achieve Inbox Zero with Mailbutler. Try it on Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail.

    The power of GTD and inbox zero

    The average office worker receives 121 emails daily and sends out forty from their Outlook, Gmail or Apple Mail inboxes. Even if you’re not alarmed by this number, you must know how it feels to stare at the unread count in your inbox and think, "I'm never going to get all this done."

    There are countless ways to approach the ultimate dream of inbox zero - many focusing on creating folders, filters or multiple inboxes (for example, having an account in both Apple Mail and Gmail). But first, let’s quickly review the five commandments of inbox zero:

    1. Time is precious. We won’t be able to take action on every email we receive.  Accepting this fact allows us to concentrate on what actually matters.
    2. 20/80 principle. Not all emails are created equally. 20% of our emails consume 80% of our focus. The remaining four-fifths of less-important emails can be handled quickly.
    3. Less is more. The longer your emails, the more time it takes for you to write them and for your recipients to go through them. Write concisely and straight to the point.
    4. Cut loose emotions. Anxiety and frustration can build up when we open a full inbox. That's not what we should focus on: we should focus on getting stuff done.
    5. Set realistic expectations and priorities. Learning when to say no and what deserves your time is crucial in achieving inbox zero. Focus on what’s important now, and accept that not everything can be accomplished. Instead, decide which emails are your priority.

    Set up your GTD email workflow

    Now we've gone through the basics of GTD and inbox zero, setting up a GTD email workflow is easy. We designed the following GTD email workflow incorporating many of Mailbutler's features, but they're entirely optional and only serve as additional helpers for this GTD email system.

    Remember, the GTD email workflow helps to get you to inbox zero regardless of whether you use Outlook, Gmail, Apple Mail, or even another email client.

    Steps to kickstart your GTD email workflow

    Set times to remove unwanted emails

    Block out a few hours of your day to first unsubscribe from your unwanted newsletters. To speed things up, make use of inbox features that let you quickly opt out of unwanted email lists.

    Most clients, like Outlook, for example, have an unsubscribe feature that can remove you from mail lists and send emails from a specific sender directly to your junk folder. The Mailbutler Snooze feature can also help with this.

    Block out times in the day to work on emails

    Decide how often you want to check your inbox. We recommend you to set up intervals during the day that won't disturb you from focusing on deep work.

    Time block yourself for these intervals, so you have dedicated and undisturbed times only for your emails. The key is to disable your email notifications when you're not checking them - or, if you're strict and always check during your email time, disable them completely.

    Archive your older emails

    If you find your current unopened emails to be a little too overwhelming to begin your GTD workflow, try moving all your 'pre-inbox zero' emails into a separate archive folder.

    (To further prove the point of inbox zero, we guarantee you won't actually need to look back at this folder after you start sorting your emails with GTD.)

    Organize your inbox

    GTD requires you to act on each email that either needs action or can be immediately archived. While we believe the search functionality is powerful enough to look for any email, depending on your needs, you can also set up the following folders, which act as archiving locations:

    • References: This is a folder for important documentation, receipts, invoices - anything you might need for later referencing.
    • Project: If you receive emails constantly about a certain project (or email campaign), you might want to put them in a specific project folder.

    Enhancing GTD with Mailbutler's Tags

    With Mailbutler's Tags, not only can you label emails, but you can also tag contacts, templates, signatures, notes, and tasks. This ensures that every piece of communication is appropriately tagged, making it easier to retrieve, respond to, or archive. Think of it as a refined filtering system that complements the GTD method, ensuring that every email, task, or note is precisely where it needs to be.

    Moreover, Mailbutler can convert your emails into tasks and notes to help you take action on them. Check out our video for more info:

    Deal with incoming emails with this simple three-step GTD workflow

    Step one: Capture

    Your email inbox is where potential tasks, ideas, or projects enter your workflow. We need to first establish that our Gmail, Outlook or Apple Mail inbox is an in-basket we need to check regularly in order to stay on top of things.

    An actionable email will result in a next step that can be broken down into smaller tasks.

    Step two: Clarify

    Clarify each email by asking, "Can I do something about this email?" If you can't do anything about it, it's time to delete it or archive it, immediately! But if you can do something about it, move on to the next step:

    Step three: Organize

    Ask yourself this question about any emails on which you can take action: "Can I do this in under two minutes?" If you can do something about it in less than two minutes, then you should do it right now.

    Reply immediately and then archive it or move it to the appropriate folder. If the sent email requires a follow-up, set a Follow-up Task, or create a task with your to-do app.

    delegate the email

    If you can't reply, you should either delegate the email to someone who can take care of it or do the required task. Either way, always delete or archive the email after you've finished. 

    If you can't do the task in under two minutes, then you should do the task at a later date when you have some time to dedicate to it. One option is to add a Reminder to the email and sync it with your preferred task manager.

    Then you can come back to take action when you have a minute. Another option is to use a feature such as an email snoozing to have the email reappear in your inbox later, so you don't forget to take action.

    Finally, you could attach a note for yourself in the email so you don’t have to read the entire email again. You can do this with the Maibutler Notes and Tasks feature.

    Tips for reaching inbox zero

    It's not just GTD that can help you reach inbox zero, though. To really get there, it's all about your attitude. Read on to learn more about how a change in perspective can help your chances of getting your inbox totally organized.

    Adopt the right attitude

    Right now, there is a big chance that your inbox has at least twenty unread messages. If yes, you need to adopt the right attitude for the inbox zero approach. 

    Here’s where you can start.

    • Understand that your inbox is a communication method. Right now, your inbox is more like a random drawer in your house where you keep miscellaneous items and which you never really tidy. “To get to inbox zero, you need to start treating your email as a means of communication and react to every email you get,” says Neightan White, a marketing specialist at SupremeDissertations. 
    • Keep in mind that you’ll have to follow this method every day. This is not a one-time-only approach, the inbox zero method is like an exercise, and you will have to devote your time every day. This means that your attitude and your system have to be sustainable.
    • Adopt the "clear-of-clutter" mindset. You might have noticed how clutter on your table always distracts you from getting the job done. A cluttered inbox works the same way: the more unread and unanswered emails you have, the less productive you will be. 

    The inbox zero approach is all about establishing a routine and adopting the right attitude to follow through with this routine every day.

    Work out the schedule

    How often should you sort your emails? When is the right time to do it?

    One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is sorting their emails every time they get an alert. Instead of boosting productivity, you can ruin your productivity with this method, as it interrupts your workflow.

    A study by the American Psychological Association has shown that multitasking like this can cost us 40% of our productivity. 

    This doesn’t mean, however, that you should dedicate your evening to de-cluttering your entire inbox. There's a chance that you won’t be done until morning, depending on how many emails you have!

    Instead, dedicate a few minutes every two to three hours. This should be enough to follow through with the five-step approach to cleaning your inbox that we mentioned above. 


    Automating will help you spend less time archiving, forwarding, and answering your emails. Thus, it will take you less time to achieve inbox zero.

    If you use Gmail, for example, you can create auto-replies by going into your settings and enabling templates.

    Next time, when you need to send an autoreply, you can create a template for it in the compose toolbar.

    There are, however, quite a few things to keep in mind to make your emails look professional. First of all, you need to pay attention to the subject line and the body of your email.

    Your subject line should be concise but not vague and should reflect the purpose of the email. In the body of your email, don't write reams and reams of text - make your emails short and to the point.

    A few sentences are usually plenty for an email template. You can also make your emails personal to improve them. One way of doing this is by adding personal information, such as to an email signature, in case your recipient needs to respond quickly.

    Getting to inbox zero also presupposes replying to urgent emails, which you will have to do every two or three hours. 

    To speed up this process, you can download Chrome extensions like Grammarly or Easy Mail which will help you draft emails quicker and mistake-free. Making sure you can easily check emails for grammar and sentence structure will help you speed up the email writing process.

    Regardless of whether you use Gmail, Outlook or Apple Mail, you can also get autoreply templates from Mailbutler, which can help to automate your email management. 

    Be persistent 

    Working on achieving inbox zero on a daily basis brings you a lot of benefits in the long run:

    • You won’t miss important emails which you might if your inbox was a huge pile of unread messages
    • Recipients won’t have to wait a long time for your response
    • If you’re a freelancer, unread emails won’t create a bottleneck in your business

    On top of that, a cluttered inbox won’t cause you unnecessary stress, and you won’t lose productivity paying attention to every email alert.

    Adopt the attitude that yes, it takes time and commitment to get this done, but following through every day, being consistent and persistent, will enable you to work smarter, faster, and better.

    One example we can share is from Luciano Viterale, founder of Luciano Viterale Consulting.

    Every quarter I clean out my inboxes trying to reach inbox zero, first I am unsubscribing from everything, and make sure I always have less than 10 emails at any one time, usually ones that need attention. Here's a screenshot of my inbox:

    inbox zero example on Gmail

    I only have the "Primary" and "Updates" folders. Everything else is deleted or unsubscribed if it has no value.

    Is Inbox Zero bad?

    The WIRED UK article talks about the "Inbox Zero" idea from the 2000s when people were swamped with emails. Instead of aiming for no emails, it's better to focus on the important ones. Don't delete everything; just sort out the key messages. It's good to check emails only at set times and take breaks from them. Also, we should be kind and not flood others with too many emails.

    The pursuit of "Inbox Zero" can be seen as a reflection of our broader societal obsession with productivity and order. While it's essential to manage our digital communications effectively, it's equally important to recognize that an empty inbox doesn't necessarily equate to a fulfilled or productive life. Instead of being slaves to our inboxes, we should use them as tools to enhance our lives, focusing on meaningful interactions and giving ourselves permission to disconnect when needed.

    Inbox Zero FAQs

    What does the phrase zero inbox mean?

    The phrase “inbox zero” refers to an email management method that focuses on keeping the inbox empty or with as few messages as possible at all times.

    Merlin Mann, the productivity expert and lifestyle guru who invented this popular concept, says that the idea of inbox zero shouldn’t be taken literally. It doesn’t really matter if your inbox isn’t completely empty, as long as you can use it quickly and easily.

    What is the point of inbox zero?

    The point of Inbox Zero is to help you stay on top of your email communication and boost your productivity by organizing your email inbox. The inbox zero method also helps you save time and money in the long run.

    What is the fastest way to get to inbox zero?

    The fastest and most sustainable way to get to inbox zero is to take advantage of the GTD (Getting Things Done) email workflow. It consists of the following three steps:

    • Organize your inbox by setting up several different folders that will serve as archiving locations (for example, a References folder, a Projects folder, etc.)
    • Reserve some time of your work day to remove unnecessary emails (either delete or archive them)
    • Reserve a few hours of your work day to respond to important emails

    You can simplify your journey to inbox zero by using your email client’s advanced features and/or installing a reliable email productivity extension like Mailbutler.

    How do I get my inbox to zero in Outlook?

    Easy — take advantage of Outlook’s smart features and integrate Mailbutler directly into your inbox. Some of Outlook’s best features for reaching inbox zero are:

    • Conversation Clean Up (deletes redundant messages)
    • Clutter (filters low-priority emails)
    • Email rules (automatically sends incoming emails to specific folders)

    With Mailbutler integrated into your Outlook inbox, you’ll be able to set follow-up tasks and other to-dos so you don’t miss out on any opportunity, schedule emails to be sent later so you can focus on other important tasks, add notes to your emails and contacts so you know exactly what to do, etc.

    What is the inbox zero method?

    The inbox zero method is an email management method that aims to reduce the time you spend managing your inbox by keeping it (nearly) empty at all times.

    How do I get inbox zero in Gmail?

    You can reach inbox zero in Gmail with the help of Mailbutler. Mailbutler allows you to:

    • Create templates so you can reply to repetitive emails fast
    • Compose email messages now and schedule them to be sent later
    • Set follow-up reminders and sync them with your preferred task manager
    • Snooze emails that don’t require immediate attention or action

    Supercharge your GTD workflow with Mailbutler

    Whether it’s email, projects, or daily chores you want to regain control of, GTD is the fool-proof and most effective way to get started on your inbox-zero journey.

    Mailbutler's inbox features are powerfully designed for Apple Mail, Outlook and Gmail to help you and your team manage emails flexibly the way you want. Make use of Notes, Snooze, and Tasks to enhance your GTD workflow even more.

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