The concept of inbox zero sounds great—until you realize that most of the methods require a fair amount of setup work, a bunch of manual sorting, and the iron-willed determination to actually follow up with people who expect a response from you.
I, for one, identify wholeheartedly with the lazy man from that one quote that I’m too lazy to type out here. (I always thought the quote came from Bill Gates, but apparently there’s some lively discussion surrounding the true source. I’d research it, but . . . you know . . . lazy.)
Lazy though I may be, I somehow keep a very clean inbox. And I don’t put much work into it, although my method has certainly evolved over the years. It started relatively simple, then got a little more complicated, and finally settled on what I use today, which involves a bit of up-front setup and initial refinement but very little work after that.
I’ll explain this assuming you’re using Outlook or Gmail, but the basic blocking and tackling remain the same across email platforms.
Method one: Deal with it or delete it
After years in the media and software businesses, one thing finally dawned on me. It’s impossible to keep up. I used to write in a notebook. I used to set reminders. I used to have Post-it Notes stuck all around my desk. But then one day I realized that if people ask me for something that’s really important, they’ll ask me again about it.
So my initial and very easy email system started out with me making an Outlook rule (also known as a filter in Gmail parlance) that created a copy of every email message I received. This rule shuttles off every message to a folder called “All”—a folder I still use to this day.
Then, my general rule is that if a message lands in my inbox that’ll take 10 minutes or less to deal with, I just deal with it. Your time threshold may be longer or shorter, but find out what works for you. If it’s something you can’t deal with right away, delete the message. Boom. Gone. Out of sight, out of mind.
Try to do this as email comes in, day or night. It’s easy. Deal with it or delete it. Then each morning, open up the “All” folder, and if anything clearly needs true attention, create a proper task for yourself (we use Asana where I work, but use whatever you use). And if it’s something that seems like it’s low priority, let it sit there in the All folder until you’re reminded about it by whomever sent it in the first place.
If you use Gmail, this is even easier. Just archive messages you don’t want to deal with right away. Then you can check Gmail’s built-in “All Mail” view each morning and handle any unavoidable messages. The concept works the same; you just don’t have to bother creating an “All” folder or setting up a filter.
Method two: Keep work friends close and outsiders out
With this tried-and-true method—called “whitelisting”—only mail I actually want will find its way to my inbox. Everything else gets relegated to the “All” folder or deleted.
The basic rule setup is as follows. Along with your Outlook “All” folder (or Gmail’s built-in “All Mail”), make a rule/filter that deletes every message that comes in except for messages from your company’s domain and any other domains or email addresses from which you want to receive mail. In Gmail, don’t have the filter delete the messages; instead, select “Skip the Inbox (Archive it).”
Once that’s set, you’ll get work mail in your inbox but nothing else. You’ll want to check your “All” folder or “All Mail” view periodically to see which messages slip through, and when you find one you actually wanted, go back to the rule/filter and add the sender or domain as an exception.
This method strikes a nice balance because once it’s set up, it’s easy to keep things under control. Unlike the previous method, you don’t just delete work-related requests willy-nilly and wait for people to bother you again. I do still handle stuff that takes less than 10 minutes; everything else sits in my inbox and I either deal with it the next day or make it into a task. By the end of each workday—without fail—I’ve got an inbox as clean and pure as the driven snow.
Bonus tip: Lots of work-related email doesn’t actually apply to me directly, so for those messages, I have a rule that marks them as read based upon which distribution group they’re sent to, while still letting them into my inbox. That way I know that unread messages—which appear in bold—will catch my eye and are something I’ll have to deal with. Everything else marked as read is for my informational purposes only.
Whitelisting might not work well for you if you get scads of external mail you actually need to deal with. If so, try the next method.
Method three: Add some filters and folders
This method takes things one step further and—to be honest—requires too much initial setup work unless you’re inundated with email. When I was in the media full-time, I used this approach, but in my current job I use the second method instead.
In Outlook, set this one up just like method two, except create additional rules that make copies of each message. Based on who sent them or the subject matter, have them moved into an appropriate email folder. This way, you can delete messages in your inbox after you’ve dealt with them, but they’ll still be sitting right where you need them later. Same idea with Gmail, except you’re creating filters based on sender or keywords, selecting “”Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” to get messages out of your face, and applying labels to sort them.
Obviously the biggest downside with this method is all the filtering rules you’ll have to build up front. But man, once you’ve got it dialed in, it’s like having your own robotic personal assistant. That’s the dream.