Getting to Inbox Zero

Every so often, I’ll go to send an email and get an annoying little message box telling me that I’ve got way too much junk in my inbox — and until I clean up my act, it won’t let me send any more outgoing messages.

Phooey to that.

The benefit, though, is that I’ve managed to come up with a technique that allows me to go from inbox-overwhelmed to inbox-empty quickly and efficiently. Here’s how I do it.

(Before getting started, I recommend turning off your phone and IM, putting on some headphones and setting out a do-not-disturb sign. You want to get in the zone to move quickly through this process. The process will take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days, depending on the volume of email you’ve got piled up.)

1. Turn on the Reading Pane

In order to get through my inbox as fast as possible, there are a few simple set-up things I like to do to get myself set up.

First up, I turn on the reading pane. The reading pane is a window that shows your message as soon as you select it, rather than having to double click the message heading to open. If  there is no reading pane option, I try to use as many keyboard shortcuts as possible so I can navigate quickly through messages without having to wait for them to open and load.

Optional: turn on threading for conversations. This helps when you need to keep only certain messages from a conversation — for example, when the most recent message includes all of the previous messages as quotes.

2. Get Ready for Initial Filing

Then, I’ll create three temporary folders (or labels/tags depending on your email package) that I use for my first pass through the messages. These folders are not the height of filing excellence, and you’ll want to do some proper filing later.

  1. Action
  2. Waiting
  3. Keep

Why three? The goal in the first pass through your inbox is to be making rapid fire decisions. Any more than three, and you start to spend time figuring out how to file, rather than just doing it.

Of course, the “trash can” or delete folder isn’t listed in those three — I assume that whatever you’re using will have one built in. But if for some reason it doesn’t, make one for that too.

Also, if your software supports it, turn on keyboard shortcuts so you can file your email with a click of a key, rather than dragging a message using your mouse.

3. Do the Initial Sort

Alright, the set-up is done. Now, it’s time to start clearing out that inbox. I view this step as a wind-sprint: I go as fast as I possibly can, looking at each message for as little time as possible (really, only a split second).

Start with the oldest emails. For each email, skim the subject, the first sentence or two of content. Scroll down to the end of the email and note if it’s got any quoted content. Ignore the sender and the rest of the content.

Now, based on only that scan, either file it into one of those three folders, or trash it. Remember to use those keyboard shortcuts, if you set them up!

Here’s what goes into each folder. The key is to go as fast as possible — it’s a race! (Setting up a little stopwatch to see how fast you can go is a great motivator!)

1) Action — anything that you need to take action on. This could be work to do, an email to respond to, an appointment to write in your daybook, or anything similar.

2) Waiting — anything that you’re waiting for someone else to take action on, before you can take action yourself. Maybe you’re waiting for an email back, or they need to bring you some documents. If you’re waiting on them before you can proceed, it goes here.

3) Keep — anything you will need to reference again in the next 3-6 months. Any longer than that, and you’ll have either forgotten about it (and thus will most likely end up requesting it again), or it will most likely be out of date.

4) Trash – everything else goes here. In other words, if it’s not actionable immediately, if it’s not actionable after you get the info you need, or if you won’t need to reference it within 6 months, it goes in the trash.

Processing Tips: 

  • Don’t take the time to actually read the e-mails. If you start reading, you’ll get bogged down, start thinking about responses or other stuff you need to do yet, and then boom. You’ve stopped processing.
  • Similarly, no matter how quickly you think you can get something done, do not stop processing to do it. Throw it into the action folder and move on.
  • Be ruthless. When in doubt, put it in the trash — 99% of the time, you’ll never need it again, anyway.
  • Keep only the most recent emails from a conversation, especially if old emails are quoted in newer ones.
  • In general, your Trash folder should get the most emails. Action and Waiting folders should be next. Your Keep folder should be smallest.

4. Do Half

It’s not always going to be practical to clear out your whole inbox in one sitting. If you have thousands (or tens of thousands!) of messages, even spending only fractions of a second on each can still take way too long.

Instead of forcing yourself to process your whole inbox at once, I like to clear it out by half. Again, start with the oldest, and simply move through half of the emails as quickly as possible.

Reward yourself with some time away from the inbox — go take a walk, get up and stretch your legs, and do something completely different. The other half of the inbox will still be there when you get back.

Each time you sit down to do more cleaning, keep doing half of your inbox until the pile of emails is small enough that you can knock it down all in one sitting.

5. Take a Break

Once you’ve got your inbox cleared out into your three main folders, take a break — preferably for a couple of days, but at least until the next morning. You need to completely clear your head of all the junk processing you’ve just done.

At the same time, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “oh, my inbox is clean, so I don’t have to go back to finish those little files.” To this point, you’ve just done some mass sorting — the real work of cleaning has yet to begin. You may want to set yourself a deadline, a date when you’ll get back to your processing.

6. Manage the Folders

Now it’s time to go into each of those three folders you created, and work through them. I recommend taking an afternoon to do this — Friday is good, because you want to get home for the weekend (and so won’t dilly-dally on any one email too long) and because it’s a nice way to wrap up the week.

In each folder, you’ll want to again go through each message, this time in a little more depth. I use a standard GTD methodology here: if the message is something I can take action on in two minutes or less, I do it right away (and then remember to trash the email once you’re done with it!). If not, it goes on my next actions list and I move on.

You can start using additional folders here, if you need to, but typically I don’t bother. I like to keep my Action, Waiting and Keep folders small and manageable. Too many folders (for me), keeps me from seeing what all I have on my plate — which makes it easier to procrastinate, etc.

Note: If you do decide to do filing (based on specific project, etc.) be careful with how you file things. If you had a previous filing system in place, don’t just throw messages into those pre-existing folders unless you are sure that they have been cleaned with the same rigour that you just put your inbox through. Create new folders if you have to.

7. Keep It Clean

This is where I admittedly tend to falter the most. I’m not necessarily the most terrible person when it comes to cleaning, but I can be downright awful at keeping things clean once they’ve been cleaned.

The trick I’ve found that works for me personally is to not over-complicate things. Like I hinted above, too many folders for me makes me less likely to file things properly (who can take the time!). For other people, I know that more folders can be better because then everything has its own particular place and home.

Whatever your technique, your inbox can quickly get back to overfull if you let it. Experiment with different systems of organization, play around with different systems, do whatever you have to. Just do your best to keep that inbox at zero and, if need be, schedule regular check-ins with your inbox, where every so often (I like every Friday afternoon), you burn that baby back down to empty.

One thought on “Getting to Inbox Zero

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *