Wunderlist and GTD: Getting Started with Email Bankruptcy and Inbox Zero

I am not a GTD or Wunderlist coach or trainer, but I do like to help people. One of the biggest hurdles is just getting started, especially if you’ve heard that GTD is too complicated, or you’ve been burned by trying to use apps for GTD before. Maybe I can help. This will probably be the least app-oriented post in my ad-hoc GTD and Wunderlist series, but it tells you how I got started. Maybe this will work for you, too!

A note: Some people are dabblers. They think, “I will try this new app/system/process/thing to see if it works.” So they use it halfway, or two or three times total, and then they decide it doesn’t work. That’s not me. I am an “all in” kind of girl. I call it the “This Is My Life Now” Method. I said to myself, “GTD is my life now. Wunderlist is the app I’m using.” I gave myself permission to quit in a month if it wasn’t working, but during that month, I was all in. And I stayed there.

So, be warned: my advice will only help if you’re ready to dive in all the way.

Declare Email Bankruptcy

I use GTD mostly for my personal life, but I use a less-strict version at work, too. Unless you are starting a brand-new job, you probably have a backlog. (Life always comes with a backlog.) You have an old to-do list, or two, or three. You have Post-Its stuck to your desk, walls, and computer monitor. You have emails in your inbox that you read and then marked as “unread” because you need to do something with them, but you didn’t do it the first time you read them. Now, though, you can’t remember what it is that you have to do, so you have to re-open the email and re-read it to figure it out. I’ve heard stories of inboxes with 3,000 unread emails!

That’s not good. That’s no way to live.

The bad news is that you might not ever catch up, and all of that stuff is clutter that you can’t stop thinking about. David Allen calls these “open loops.” You are wasting time with every email you have to re-open and reassess. You have a note on your desk that says “Mom.” What does that mean?

The good news is that no one lets you forget something that’s really important. I forgot to pay taxes on my AmeriCorps Education Award one year, so the IRS sent me a strongly-worded letter. They did not forget. If any of those 3,000 emails is critical, you will get another email. If you forget to call your mom on her birthday, she will let you know.

There is really only one way out: declare email bankruptcy. Put every single email in your inbox into a “Backlog” folder. If you use Gmail, like I do, label them all “Backlog” and archive them. For physical to-do lists and Post-Its, put them in a file folder or envelope labeled “Backlog.”

Now, take a deep breath and enjoy the look of your clean inbox and clear desk. The Gmail iOS app even gives you a smiling sun as a reward!

Gmail at inbox zero says, "You have no mail. Please enjoy your day!" Thanks, smiling sun!

Sign up for Wunderlist and look at your big, empty Inbox list. Don’t worry; you’ll be seeing these beautiful, clear vistas again at least once a week. This is your life now.

Learn Inbox Zero

Inbox zero is a way of life. Your goal is to reach inbox zero at least once per week. This means that you will have:

  1. Zero emails in your inbox
  2. Zero items in your physical inbox(es)
  3. Zero tasks in your Wunderlist Inbox list
  4. Zero tasks floating around in your brain

Yes, this is possible. I’m living proof! (I struggle with my physical inbox.)

The simplest way to visualize this is to compare your email inbox to your physical mailbox, the one the U.S. Postal Service uses. Some things that wind up in there are fun, like birthday cards. Some are less exciting but very important, like bills. Some are things you just can’t figure out how to stop getting; we call that “junk mail.” I’ll bet you can think of parallels for things floating around in your brain.

No one goes to the mailbox, peers inside, shuffles through to get the fun stuff, and closes it back up with the junk mail and bills still inside. If you do that for too long, the box gets full and the Postal Service will literally stop delivering your mail until you go to the post office in person, with ID, and tell them that you’ve emptied it out. True story.

In GTD terms, any thoughts bouncing around in your head work just like emails lingering in your email inbox. Think of your brain like a gooey version of your email inbox. According to the cognitive science David Allen cites in the revised edition of the GTD book, your brain inbox can only hold about four items. After that, one of them has to go before something else can be stored. That’s why you forget where you parked.

The key is to get everything out of your inboxes and into a trusted system like Wunderlist. You will work out of that system. Not out of your head. Not from memory. Not in your email inbox. You’ll build a system, use the system, and work the system.

Practice Inbox Zero

I’ll use email in this part because it’s more straightforward, but the same things apply to processing your brain, your physical inbox(es), and your Wunderlist Inbox list.

From now on, you don’t “check email.” You process email. You will deal with every single email that hits your inbox as though it’s a piece of regular mail. Emails don’t live in your inbox anymore. They come in (something you can’t always control, just like regular mail), and then you process them out.

This is a shortened version of David Allen’s basic GTD processing workflow:

  1. Open the email (unless you can delete it without opening it, based on the subject line).
  2. Decide what to do with it. Ask yourself, “What is this?”
  3. Delete it, if possible. (It will be in your trash folder if you make a mistake.)
  4. If you need to do something based on what’s in the email, and you can do it in less than 2 minutes, do it right now.
  5. If someone else needs to do something, delegate the task by forwarding the email to that person.
  6. If you need to do something, but you can’t do it now, forward the email to me@wunderlist.com. The subject line becomes the task title, and the body of the email goes into the task notes.
  7. File the original email in one big “Archive” folder. Gmail makes this easy.
  8. Repeat until you have zero emails in your inbox. Then celebrate!

In summary: open, decide, delete/do/delegate/defer, and file. Move fast. It will be scary to start filing and deleting emails immediately. Everything’s still there if you need it, though. Even Gmail only deletes your trash every 30 days.

Aim to reach inbox zero at least once per week. When you get really good, you can reach inbox zero several times a day.

Stop “Checking Your Email” Constantly

If you have been “checking email” for more than 30 minutes, stop and do some other kind of work. Unless one of your explicit job responsibilities is to read and reply to email, you have other work to do. It’s called Getting Things Done, not Checking Your Email All Day. Open your inbox, and process to zero. Then go to Wunderlist and work from there. You will find all the work you have to do because something was emailed to you.

How often should you process your inbox? That’s up to you. The best of the best can do it just one a day, in the late afternoon. At a minimum, I process first thing in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, 30 minutes before my workday ends, and last thing. That last check usually consists of deferring everything to the next day. To figure out what works for you, try processing every 30 minutes. Adjust from there.

I can’t lie: it was scary when I applied this at my job for the first time. I made it My Life Now for a week, and now I’m never going back. It took my coworkers some time to get used to our new face-to-face exchanges.

Coworker: Did you get my email?

Me: When did you send it?

Coworker: Just now [or “two minutes ago,” “ten minutes ago,” even “thirty minutes ago”].

Me: No, I did not get your email. (opens Outlook, which I use at work) (discusses email with coworker)

But now I’m evangelizing them all about the glories of converting. It’s pretty cool.

Capture, and Work Through Your Backlog

You might also wonder what to do with new tasks, random task-related thoughts, or things like a honey-do list. Those don’t show up in Gmail. This is where the first step of GTD, Capture, is invaluable. When you think of a new task (or get one from someone else) by any channel other than email, enter it into your Wunderlist Inbox list or put it in a physical inbox tray.

As for your backlog, go through that in 30-minute or 10-email bursts once a day, every day. Start with the most recent emails (because those will have the freshest or most urgent information) and with any emails from family or friends (because they care about you). Truly urgent things (like a fire alarm) don’t let you ignore them, and people get angry when you ignore them. Once you reach items that are over about 30 days old, you can probably ignore those forever.

To manage and complete tasks in Wunderlist, you’ll actually be moving into the five-step GTD process. Discussing that is for another day.

Additional Resources

Sci-fi writer and Evernote Ambassador Jamie Todd Rubin offers some tips for how to stay at inbox zero. Skip the first tip. Boomerang makes you re-process email, and Mailbox is no longer available.

Wade Roush of Xconomy shares his story about declaring email bankruptcy. Don’t be scared! You can do this!

Gretchen Louise offers her own tips for maintaining inbox zero, including one for the Spam folder that I also use.

The widely-accepted originator of the term “inbox zero,” Merlin Mann points out that inbox zero is a state of mind, not just a number. Your actual work shouldn’t be maintaining that zero; just focus on reaching it more often than never.

The GTD VSG (Virtual Study Group) hosted a discussion on working from zero. You can download the recording directly or find it in your podcast app of choice. There is some great advice on how often to aim for and achieve inbox zero.

I really like the team at Asian Efficiency. They updated their recommended email processing technique to promote inbox zero and get rid of their previous folder system. The current recommendation is basically the exact system I use at work with Outlook (which has superb email-to-task integration).


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Very informative! I actually managed to get my work email to zero for a little while. This has motivated me to bring it back down to zero again. Thanks!

Nice thoughts, thanks!
Instead of emailing to Wunderlist I use the Wunderlist-Addon on Outlook (https://wunderlist.yasoon.com/) – it works great!


Great piece Lindsay – I’ve being working through GTD all weekend and your was one of the clearest articles I found!



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