The Magic Of Inbox Zero

empty-gmail-inbox Inbox Zero is often considered to be mythical and unobtainable. I thought this for a long time and struggled to find a way to efficiently manage my email inbox. After much trial and error, research, and fortitude I was able to discover and adopt a system that would work for me.

Before trying to undertake the process of achieving inbox zero, it is important to understand why you want it. For me there were three simple reasons I needed inbox zero:

  1. Email was another to-do list that needed prioritized, managed, and groomed
  2. Stress from seeing old yet lower priority emails that still required action in my face every time I opened my email
  3. My previous attempts caused serious performance issues for Outlook

Now that we understand the desire for this illustrious goal, let’s talk about how to achieve it!

My workflow currently only utilizes 4 primary folders.

The Inbox

This is the dumping ground for all new email. Ideally this will be empty at all times, however at a minimum should be done daily before ending the day to give you the peace of mind that the empty list provides. Anything that takes less than two minutes to process should be completed on the spot (the two-minute rule).

Archive

This folder is a little more controversial. I know many folks that like to file emails into folders, however that gets messy and time-consuming, especially if you have a large volume of email. The approach I’m utilizing involves placing 95% of emails (sent and received) into this folder. This allows you to more easily leverage the search built into your email client and saves much time when trying to think about where any given email should go.

Follow-Up

Any email that will require some further action from you goes here. This could be following up on a delegated email, something that requires work from you but doesn’t meet the two-minute rule I described above, or that you need to make sure you receive a response. Any item added to this folder should have a corresponding entry in your trusted to-do system to ensure proper prioritization.

Hold

Emails that you might need to reference in the near future. This might be the reservation email for dinner this weekend, flight information for upcoming travel, or the username information for the new hire starting next week.

I’ve described the simple workflow for processing emails into an illustration below.

Processing Emails Workflow

These are the rules and processes I’ve found to work best to wrangle my email to the ground. Does it work for you? Do you do something different?

  • Good stuff. Have you ever tried the “Mailbox” app for managing email?

    • I tried it when the Android app first came out and it felt incomplete to me at the time. I picked it up again today and it feels much nicer. Thanks for reminding me about the app!

  • Great article Mike! I see you like workflowy and GTD style inbox zero. I recently wrote and article about inbox zero as well. Would love for you to take a look! http://blog.gtdnext.com/inbox-zero-getting-things-done/ Please comment!

    When you get a chance check out http://GTDNext.com – it’s free and based on your blog post I think you might just like it.

    • Thanks! Yours is a great post also, I’m definitely going to check out unroll.me to prevent email from even needing to be processed! I added GTDNext to the list also and will check it out.