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How to get to inbox zero (and stay there)

It’s easy for an email inbox to get out of control: we get distracted by all the new messages coming in and never actually deal with the ones already there. 

Our inbox ends up as a combined to-do list and filing system. No wonder we get stressed!

With these three stages, you can sort out your current inbox and set up a new system to deal with future emails when they arrive, quickly and stress free.

You need to:

  • sort out folders
  • hack inbox
  • know how to deal with future emails.

Things you'll need

  • A full email inbox
  • One hour

Set up your folders

To do this, set up three folders within your email system:

  • @Action
  • @Read
  • @Waiting.

Using an @ symbol at the start of your folder names will automatically put them at the top of your folder list.

Image of the three folders that you'll use to process your emails, positioned at the top of your folder list.

These processing folders are where anything you’re currently working on will be kept and where the most time and attention is spent. 

@Action folder

You may be used to using your inbox as the place where you focus on your work and pick up your next tasks, but the @Action folder will now be your main hangout. 

What goes in here? 

Any email that needs a reply or action which will take longer than two minutes. 

What doesn’t go in here?

Any email that needs a non-email related action (eg a phone call or errand reminder). Add these tasks to a separate to-do list. 

If an email can be replied to or dealt with in less than two minutes, do it straight away, rather than clogging up your @action folder. 

If you're not sure what to do with an email, put it back in the inbox and tackle it as part of step two.

@Read folder

What goes in here?

Any email that you want to read at a later time.

What doesn’t belong in here?

Emails that need an action; these go in the @action folder.

Any email that can be read and either deleted or filed in less than two minutes.

If you're not sure whether you're really going to read the email, don't put it in the @read folder yet. Be sure that it would be a good use of your time before you commit to reading it.

@Waiting folder

The emails in this folder are reminders that you’re waiting for someone else to do something. Treat it as your portfolio of people to nag, prod and chase.   

Other folders

In addition to these three folders, you could also have a storage folder for important documents (for future reference) and a folder called 'email death row' (more on this in a minute!)


Clear your inbox

Now it’s time to work through the emails that are already in your inbox and move them to the right folders.

You'll find that most of them don't need any significant action, so you can be pretty ruthless (but don't be reckless!)

Rearrange your inbox

By changing how the messages in your inbox are sorted, you can work through them in a more structured, systematic way.

Sort by date

  • Start at the bottom and work upwards. There may be one or two old emails that you think are still important, but the chances are they’re for reference rather than action. File them.
  • Decide on a date – let’s say anything older than six months. Move every email older than this into the ‘email death row’ folder. These emails are waiting to die. Add a time in your calendar (perhaps six weeks ahead) and if by that date you haven’t needed anything in that folder, delete it.

Sort by subject

  • This view will show you strings of conversations. When there’s been a conversation of 20 emails you can usually delete the first 19, as the final email should contain a string of all the others.
  • File or delete emails with subject lines that relate to dates or events that have already passed.
  • If you come across circulars (daily, weekly or monthly round-up emails) it's a good idea to set up some rules that will files these into a reference folder (perhaps called 'circular').

Sort by sender

  • Delete emails from people that have left your organisation.
  • Delete emails from the reception desk about cakes in the kitchen or taxis for people you've never heard of.

What you're left with

Now your inbox only contains emails that need a bit more thought and organisation.

Each one will belong in either the bin, @Action, @Waiting, @Read, death row or your archive.

Apply the two-minute rule: if an email can be dealt with in less than two minutes, do it straight away; don't store it in the @ACTION folder.

By this point, you should have reached inbox zero. Congratulations!


Know how to deal with new emails

Now it’s time to think about how to deal with new emails.

Each one should fit into one of the following categories.

Delete Delete it.
Do it now If it'll take less than two minutes to deal with, do it right away.
Do it later Move into @Action.
Reference Move into one of your reference folders or @Read.
Delegate it Deal with it now and move into @Waiting or @Action.
Defer the decision Move into @Action and set up a reminder in your calendar.
Decide there is no action from you Move into @Waiting or a reference folder, or delete.

Final thought

Your inbox is not a to-do list. Email is just one part of your working life (admittedly quite a big one) so if you use it to manage your tasks you risk missing things from elsewhere. 

Start to think of your inbox as a place where your emails wait to be processed, and remember that the impact of an email isn't felt in the inbox that it lands in; it ends with an action, a reply, something read and filed, or something deleted. 


Page last edited Apr 13, 2017 History

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