Leo Babauta: empty gmail hack

[2017 Update: I haven’t been using this hack anymore, but it’s still a good one.]

I’ve been using a Gmail hack to implement the Smart Unread Inbox as formulated by dbuntix.

His setup is for Apple Mail, I think, and doesn’t work for Gmail. So I figured out a solution that I’ve been using for a little while, and it works great:

  1. Clear out your inbox. For to-dos that are in your inbox, star them, put them on a to-do list, and archive. Archive and delete others, make some quick replies, put everything else in a “to-read” or “to-process” folder if you need to.
  2. Create an “everything skips the inbox” filter in Gmail: it should have an asterisk “*” without quotes in the “from:” field (which means every incoming message), and the action taken is “Skip Inbox. This means that every incoming message will skip your inbox. You’ll get a warning but create the filter anyway.
  3. In the Labs tab in Settings, enable “Multiple Inboxes”. As an aside, I also recommend enabling the following labs: Auto-advance, Docs & Maps previews, Smartlabels, and Undo Send. They’ll save you a lot of time. Now save these settings.
  4. In the Multiple Inboxes tab, in Panel 0, put the search query “is:unread”. I put an underscore “_” in the panel title. I have the maximum page size set to show 9 conversations, and extra panels positioned “above the inbox”. Don’t have any other inboxes besides the “is:unread” inbox (such as starred or important), because they’ll ruin the effect of this hack.
  5. Later, you can set filters for things you don’t like to read (notifications, newsletters, etc.), so that they are “marked as read” and maybe even deleted.

That’s the setup. Now what will happen is your inbox will only have unread messages … which means, after you read an email, if you do nothing with it, it’ll disappear out of your inbox after a few seconds. Zap it’s gone!

The power of this is that you know a message will disappear after you read it, so you are motivated to act on it right away. You should therefore do one of these things:

  1. Reply or act/reply immediately if it takes a minute or less.
  2. Put it on your todo list, and star it, if you need to act or write a longer reply later.
  3. Put it on your calendar immediately if it’s something you need to do on a certain date.

Otherwise, just hit archive, and it’ll auto-advance to the next message. You can process a dozen messages like this in a minute or three, and then your inbox is empty again!

An inbox that disappears as you read it, so you’re motivated to act. That’s a bit of Zen in your email.

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