How to Keep Your Email Inbox at Zero

Keep your email inbox at zero

I thought I had it all together, I really did. Then, this morning happened…

I have not been driving my kids to school for the past few months since my son got his driver’s license. He has been responsible for getting them to and from school every day. We are in the last couple of weeks of the school year, so the schedule is a little different and crazy.

My son has finals this week and is done at noon every day. Some days he has not had to be there until 10:00 because he only had one final. So I’ve taken my daughter to school because she still has classes all day. Her finals are not until next week.

As I drove on to campus this morning, I suddenly remembered that my daughter was supposed to bring something for a school party today. I confirmed with her that she was and quickly figured out I had time to run to the store, purchase the item, and get it back to school before she needed it.

Both she and I forgot about the email we received a few days ago reminding us what she was supposed to bring.

And, it’s not just this one email. I’ve been very lax about keeping my inbox at zero. A couple of years ago I had it down to zero. I had a great plan that I was confident would help me to keep my inbox organized and at zero most of the time.

But, guess what…I’m back to over 1,000 emails in my inbox again!

What happened?

I didn’t follow through with the system I had in place. I kept emails in my inbox instead of filing them in the folders I set up.

Here is a recap of my email system:

1. Unsubscribe

If you’re like me, your email address is on many mailing lists of your favorite stores, websites, and blogs. Consider whether you are really getting a benefit from receiving these emails. If you are not, take 30 seconds to unsubscribe. For the ones you want to keep receiving, you can set up a folder in which to automatically send them. (See #3 & #4)

2. Delete

As you are going through your email, delete any that are old or irrelevant. I found that I had been holding on to some emails “just in case” I needed them. I discovered that they were no longer needed so I deleted them. If you have 1000’s of emails, the delete key is your best friend. I found emails I was hanging on to from 2014. Yikes! Obviously I did not need those anymore.

3. Create Folders


email folders

I am a big fan of the Getting Things Done method of time management by David Allen.

When it comes to email, David suggests setting up folders in which to sort your email. So I set up folders for emails relating to school, kid’s stuff, writing, my blog, and a few others that keep information easily accessible.

Folders are great for those emails that you don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. I created a series of folders with the @ symbol in front of the name so they would be at the top of my list. These are @Immediate Action, @Important Action, @Incubation, @Someday, and @Waiting.

Immediate Action is for emails I need to handle by the end of the day or the next day at the latest. Important Action is for emails that I need to take care of within the week. Incubation is for emails for things I’m considering doing such as an event or a store sale. Someday holds emails with info on things I may want to do at some point in the future. Waiting holds emails where I’m waiting on info or action from someone else before processing.

The key to making these @ folders work is to review them regularly. I check the Immediate Action and Important Action a couple times a day to make sure I’ve taken care of all tasks.

4. Set Up Preferences or Filters

As I mentioned in #1 there are a few email lists I’m on that I still want to get but don’t necessarily want to read everyday. Advertisements fall into that category. So, I learned how to set up preferences so these emails will go directly into a folder I’ve labeled as Advertisements. Then I can go through that folder at my leisure and see if there is anything I want to act on. If you are not sure how to do this in your email system, just search preferences or filters to find out how.

I mentioned above that I have not been following through with this system. I have been thinking lately about what has caused me to stop following it because I’ve had to search for so many emails that were hard to find.

Here are a few reasons I have discovered that have caused me not to follow through:

  • I didn’t trust the system.
  • I never set up triggers to remind me to check my action folders so I was always afraid to file an email away in case I missed an important deadline.
  • I did not get specific enough with my folders. There are more folders that I can create that will help me stay organized.

I’m the kind of girl who likes to see everything. When emails are filed away, I forget about them. So it’s important for me to make sure I’ve recorded any pertinent dates or information in my planner and use the email for reference.

Now that I have figured out what was not working for me with the system, I can make some adjustments.

This is what I’m going to do:

  1. Go through my 1,000+ emails using the system I outlined above.
  2. Take action on each new email immediately as I see it. That may mean file, record info, read, or delete.
  3. Set a specific time each week to look at my action folders to make sure I’m up to date with the actions in those emails.

If you are bogged down with emails, I encourage you to give this system a try. With a little bit of time and patience, you too can keep your inbox at zero forever.

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  1. Hi, Jennifer. I read your article. I am a proponent of the “Zero Inbox” practice. Thanks for sharing your ideas and processes.

    I offer a couple ideas that you might find helpful.

    #1 – Put your folders into logical groups.
    I think you will find that putting your folders into some type of logical structure will help you connect your emails to the real world and reduce folder clutter.

    Here is an example of a logical structure:

    * InBox
    * Task Management
    * Immediate Action
    * Important Action
    * Someday
    * Waiting
    * Shopping
    * Advertisements
    * Technical
    * Evernote
    * Web Info
    * Kids
    * Miscellaneous Stuff
    * School
    * Conferences
    * My Activities
    * Blogging
    * Blog Posts
    * Blogging Issues
    * Scrapbooking
    * Website
    * Writing
    * Reference
    * Online Subscriptions
    * Trash

    You mentioned that with many, many emails that you concluded that you did not get specific enough with your folders. If you follow through along those lines, logically grouping your folders will be even more helpful.

    Also, be sure to use the “expand” and “collapse” feature of your email software to reduce the lines and clutter.

    #2 Use the “Reminders” app (or other “To Do” app) on your smart phone.
    The idea here is to reduce, if not almost entirely eliminate, the time you spend reviewing existing “action” folders and emails. I know the GTD processes recommend regular reviewing, but I don’t think they are effective for busy people. By the time the end of the week comes, a busy person has received another 10-20 “To Dos” and will never get around to “To Dos” that don’t have a “Due Date”. Busy people should spend more time getting things done, than reviewing things to be done.

    You can reduce the review process by setting reminders with alarms on your computer / smartphone that will “do the remembering” for you. When you first receive an item that will cause you to do something (and it is soon), then create a reminder with an alarm. Then, you can forget it and stop worrying about it. If it is clear that you will have take action sometime in the future, but you just don’t know when, then set the reminder with an alarm for a date and time when you will review the item again. If an item isn’t worthy of a reminder and an alarm, then just move it to the “Someday” folder and you, as a busy person, will never have to look at it again.

    I hope you feel these ideas are helpful.

    1. Jim,

      Thanks so much for your comments and suggestions! They are very helpful.

      I wrote this article several months ago and have actually begun doing some of the things you suggested since I wrote it. I discovered that I needed a little more organization and detail with my folders. It has helped me tremendously.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

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