How To Get Your Inbox to Zero (And Keep It There)

too_much_mailIf you are a working professional, a college student, or just someone who uses email, this article could make a significant and lasting difference in your daily life. That is my intention, anyway. I want to help you achieve a sense of peace and relaxed control when it comes to managing your inbox.

You do not have to live in dread of checking your messages, spend hours wading through the monstrous pile built up after even the briefest hiatus from your desk, or have the “Psycho” movie theme playing somewhere in the back of your mind when you go to open up that inbox every morning. (Instead, you might hear Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” 🙂 )

If you are like most people, you do not manage your email. Instead, your email runs totally amok in your inbox. Messages pour in by the score, today’s piling on top of yesterday’s on top of the day before on top of the years and years before that.

You probably have thousands of emails, and have long since mentally numbed yourself to that red “New” number or the big bold “Unread” count screaming for your attention. You have muffled the sound. You simply do not have the time to deal with it, because you just got a fresh batch of new emails to deal with. You focus on scraping the surface with the most recent and the most urgent messages, hoping you remember which other ones to get back to in a timely manner, and then ignore all the rest.

You might have attempted at one point (maybe several times) to entirely clear out  your inbox. It might have taken hours or days to do, and you likely didn’t know what to do with half of it. But if you were successful, I’ll bet it felt really good and refreshing to have everything processed and purged, like spring cleaning your house. You would go to check your email after and it was like a digital Fabreze scent was wafting from your inbox. But, as usually happens in an unorganized home, the clutter eventually piled back up and you got buried alive once again.

The trick to keeping your house organized is having, as the old adage goes and my grandpa was fond of repeating, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” The same is true for email. Fortunately, email is a lot easier to categorize and create places for than all the varied stuff in your home; it really only requires a few key locations. After setting these up initially, maintaining them is very straightforward and, with a simple processing habit established, becomes highly manageable.

I stumbled on a way to effectively manage my email down to a zero inbox while in the middle of earning my BA degree. It was such a life saver! At the time, I had a myriad of email accounts that I was using and having to check on: an old Yahoo one I hung on to for the occasional communication and a massive library of photos I never downloaded, a Gmail that served as my primary, an email registered with a personal domain, and my very active student account. Trying to maintain all of these accounts was both tedious and tiresome. As a working student who spent up to 3 hours commuting per day (thank you, Los Angeles), it was not a valuable use of my particularly limited time. (Neither was hanging out in rush hour traffic, but let’s not go there right now…)

Years later, I have still been effectively applying the same system and following a few main rules to keep on top of my personal email. I suspect that most people reading this are more interested in how to make it effective at work, since that is where the real e-floods and e-fires are. I am happy to say that I have very successfully applied and even fine-tuned the system for my current office work email, which is in fact where the system really shines since my work inbox stays empty in spite of the constant, daily deluge of email from coworkers and clients, and the billions of CCs on this, that, and the other memo. 😛 (The way I process my email actually makes me like getting copied on everything though. I stay in the loop, and my inbox still stays clear. It is possible!)

If you have thousands of emails to go through, you will need to set aside a chunk of committed up-front time to get your inbox to zero. After that, though, you will have little to do to stay on top of keeping it empty.

So, what is the system and how do you set it up?

Getting Things Done: The “GTD” System

Credit must be given where it is due. I first learned about the system I use for email processing from reading David Allen’s productivity book, Getting Things Done, also known as  “GTD.” (I have read the book several times through, once in scrutinizing detail with highlighter, pencil, post-its and notebook. 🙂 If you are so inclined, I highly recommend reading the book or else finding out more about the system and the philosophy behind it on the GTD website.)

In this article, I am sharing the basics of David’s system as it specifically applies to email, with tips and ideas from my own experience utilizing it.

What follows are the steps to set up your system, get your inbox to zero, and then keep it that way.

1. Route Your Email to ONE Location

Before any inbox clearing can happen, even before establishing the places (or as David calls them, “buckets”) to distribute your email to, you first need to get your email all going into one location so you only have to login once to check your messages, assuming you have multiple email addresses to manage. If you check your work email only at the office, though, and your own stuff at home or on your mobile device, then it is of course best to keep your professional and personal accounts separate. If you want to or must access both wherever you are, you will just need separate them out within a single account.

If you are tech savvy, routing your email to one account will be fairly easy. If you’re not, get someone who is to help you. Otherwise, do yourself a massive favor by taking a little time to read a how-to online (I would lay it out here but there are simply too many variations of different emails to be messing with and I wouldn’t do them all justice, having only routed a few specific ones myself).

Here is what I did: I picked my primary Gmail account as the home base. Then I routed my Yahoo, personal domain, and student account all to Gmail. (Eventually I emptied and then discontinued use of the Yahoo address. I confess, I’m a Google girl.) The domain emails went to its own folder, but the student stuff went to my regular inbox along with everything else sent to Gmail. (No longer having to login to the student website to get important messages from professors, TAs and classmates was a huge relief. Especially as my personal Gmail usually got ignored for days on end because the school stuff inevitably took precedence and I checked it more often.) At present, I keep my work email at the office, and use Outlook.

2. Set Up Places to Put Things (i.e. Create Folders)

Your email account likely already has several default folders, including Spam, Draft, Sent, and Trash. (That Trash bin is your new best friend, by the way.) You will need three new basic email folders (or in the case of Gmail, Labels) to put things in and get started with your system:




…That’s it! Yay for simple!

The “@” symbol is a little GTD trick for getting the folders to organize themselves in the order you want them in (otherwise they arrange alphabetically). You can add sub-folders within these main folders (which I find very useful, particularly within “Reference”–I go balls out here), or create additional primary folders as required. However, these three are sufficient to start and will form the basis of all your email professing.

@ACTION – This folder is where everything goes that you need to do something about, and it is on you to do it.

@WAITING FOR – This folder is where you can temporarily store message that you are waiting to hear back on, or you are otherwise awaiting further instructions or information before you can do anything about it.

@REFERENCE – This is for anything and everything that you do not want to delete, do not need to take any action on, and that may potentially prove valuable as reference material that you may want to look back on. (Example: I have a sub-folder in mine called “Receipts”, where I store all emails confirming payments and purchases.)

Another helpful folder that is similar to “Waiting for” is “Hold” or “Tickler” (“Tickler” is a GTD term; it is meant to “tickle” the memory to get back around to something; while the concept is useful, I find that this specific verbiage tends to elicit suggestive eyebrow raising and juvenile chuckles from those who see it… A different generation’s interpretation of the word, I suppose? 😛 Use whatever suits your fancy ;))

“Hold” is for messages that you don’t need to do anything about now, and are not waiting for anything other than the appropriate time to roll around; it might also consist of emails that you want to eventually get back to in future, perhaps to check out a link or article when you have more time, but it is not time-sensitive. (@READ is an option here, although I have yet to be very successful at consistently making the time to read through them. Therefore I “Hold” them for later or keep them in my @Action folder to remind me to do it.)

3. Start Processing (Clear Out Your Inbox)

Now that you have a place to put all that email in your inbox, start at the top with the most recent and work your way down, deciding what each message means and then processing them to the appropriate folder as you go. It is very important at this stage not to do anything other than distribute the emails to folders; read only enough to know where it goes, but resist the temptation to start emailing people back or even worse, do other things that you’re reminded about because of the email. Stay focused. You will get to do stuff with @Action later. If you are worried about losing site of something super important that you somehow managed to lose site of before, feel free to flag or star the message so it stands out to you later.

If you come across emails that you suspect require some kind of associated task but are not quite sure what that may be (and you cannot deduce at a glance), either throw them in @Action to figure it out later, or else delete the damn things. They have most likely been sitting in your inbox long enough to have grown e-mold anyway, so simply cut the loss and move on. The world will keep turning.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, gets to stay in your Inbox. The inbox is like a waiting room, and you have to take care of each email that comes in. For our intents and purposes, imagine it is an emergency waiting room. Play triage. Does the email need immediate or very-near-future attention or it will die? @Action. Will the email survive if you leave it alone for a while at least until you have the time or the appropriate medical supplies to treat it? Put it in “Hold” or @Waiting for. Is the email perfectly healthy and able to go home and just be on call when needed? Reference it.

Are you getting the idea here? There is virtually nothing you can receive by email that cannot be funneled into one of these categories. Again, you can sub-categorize, but the essential location remains the same. And once they are put in their place, you only need to be keeping an eye on @Action (to-do) and @Waiting for (to make sure it doesn’t fall through the cracks, and to remind you to follow up if necessary), and ever now and then, take a gander at what is on “Hold”.

Once you get the hang of moving emails out of your inbox and into their appropriate folder/label/bucket, opening up a full inbox to get it to zero will be a relatively quick and painless operation. Then, you can focus on taking action on the important stuff without getting bogged down by the fluff and noise of unfiltered junk, notifications, CCs, and FYIs.

4. Get in the Habit

The real trick to all of this is recognizing that your email is not going to process itself. You are the one with the brain who has to decide what each thing means and what to do with it. Once you get in the groove of this, it will become second nature and you will fiiiinally be in control and in command of your Inbox. You’ll have people catch a glimpse of your Inbox with mouths gaping as they exclaim, “It’s EMPTY?!” Yes, yes it is.

And it feels so good! 😀

Tips for Keeping Your Inbox Clean


> Apply the 2 Minute Rule

When I go into the office and check my email in the morning, or go into my personal email, I process and distribute messages out of my inbox right away, before responding to any of them. The exception to this is if it requires only a super quick reply. David Allen’s rule of thumb here is if it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Sometimes I apply this rule to my email, sometimes not. (Often not, because often what I think is two minutes becomes five+ minutes crafting my reply. What can I say, I like to write…!)

> Unsubscribe 

I am currently subscribed to several newsletters, and although I appreciate the information provided therein and really like the sources, having those regular incoming streams kind of make my eyes glaze over. I save the ones I want to read, delete the ones I won’t; but I am considering either routing them directly to their own folder, or else unsubscribing altogether. These frequent emails clutter up my inbox and distract me from catching the more urgent items.

I have made a personal rule of un-checking the “Send me updates” box whenever I sign up for something, as well as unsubscribing as soon as something shows up that I don’t want or no longer wish to receive. You can sometimes email the request in, but there is usually an Unsubscribe button down at the bottom of the message. Some clever folks like to make it extra challenging for you by being a no-reply sender, and/or hiding their teeny tiny Unsubscribe button on the email so that you have to get out your magnifying glass to find it, or else go through several steps to get to it, including having to log into your account on their website to update your email preferences. Do it. Save yourself the mind-numbing experience of receiving those emails. It will seriously undermine the rest of your email messages that actually need your attention.

> Auto-Delete

If you cannot find the Unsubscribe button or are fed up with trying to figure it out, or there is anything else you do not want to waste your time or brain cells processing, you can simply create a “rule” in your email to automatically send those messages to a pre-established folder (like Reference or a sub-category somewhere) or better yet, the trash. The trash bin my favorite go-to for dealing with email crap that I do not need or want (after exhausting my Unsubscribe options, that is).

Another trick with deleting is to toss anything that has festered too long in your @Action folder. If it’s been a couple months, move it to “Hold” or “Reference” or delete it.

> Mark Things “Important”

If you want a way to further define your @Action so that you can easily distinguish between urgent and not-as-urgent emails, you can use whatever feature your email server provides for marking things “Important”, like a flag or a star. I find this irrelevant to do right now with my personal email since the influx is relatively minimal, but with my Outlook for work I red flag stuff like the world is ending. I am kind of in love with this feature on Outlook because you can also click the flag to check-mark it “Done”, which I will do before deleting or filing in Reference. So satisfying. (Memo to Google: I need this in my Gmail.)

> Sub-Folders

I have already mentioned ways I use sub-folders, but want to emphasize their valuable function again here. You can get creative with sub-folders and really customize your system setup based on your own needs. In my personal email I have 5 sub-folders under Reference, but at work I have 20, with many sub-folders within the sub-folders. (It’s Subception!) Do what makes sense and is most functional for you. Generally though, less is more.

> You Choose

The fun thing about having a system and being fully in control of your email: the e-world stops requiring you to wear your fireman’s hat all the time and you get to actually take a breath and respond at leisure! You know what’s critical and what’s not, and you can make your choice as to when to respond accordingly. Not just when you can or need to, but when you want to.

Now What? Get Things Done!

Has this article inspired you a little? Are you feeling motivated? Don’t just read this and go back to the scary black hole that is your email Inbox. Do something about it. Schedule an evening or a weekend to start setting up your system and commit to getting your Inbox to zero.

A final word to those e-hoarders amongst you: Let it go. Take a load off your mental RAM by releasing the mounds of digital debris you’re clinging to. Set yourself freeeeee!

You’ll have so much time on your hands when your Inbox is all squeaky-clean and empty, and when you know you can safely ignore those @Action items for a second… Whatever will you do with yourself?

Find something more interesting to do with your existence than checking email, and git ‘er done!

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If you found this article helpful, please like and share with others, and feel free to comment with your feedback or ask questions! Thank you!








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