Time Management Series: What Do You Mean Your Inbox is Empty?

It’s no secret that I am always looking for ways to better manage my time.  I am always looking for ways to make my everyday life tasks a little bit easier, a little bit more streamlined.  Today, I want to share with you how I keep my email inbox at zero.  Yes, I said zero.  I mean it too, there are NO EMAILS in my inbox.  It’s empty, and I like it that way.  Here’s how I do it.

First off, you have to start by making folders in your email program.  I use Yahoo, so I click on “add a folder” and it does.  I have made up folders for each of the aspects of my life: School, Home/Family, Alumni (I serve on my alma mater’s Alumni Association), Invoices, Newsletter, and PDP.  I also have made up folders called Hold and Follow Up.  This list of folders is integral to the success of keeping your inbox empty.  To decide what to make for your folders, you should survey the things that you receive email about most frequently, and make folders for them.

Next, you need to sift through what is in your inbox.  I worked with a friend recently who had over 3,000 emails in their inbox, dating back to 2005.  A lot of those emails, now, are trash.  They get dumped right into the trash.  The emails that you need to keep, that you may need to reference in the future, get sorted into the folder that matches what they are for.  So, for example, if I am sifting through my emails and I find an email inviting me to a meeting from 2009, and then one detailing the notes from the meeting, I will put them invitation in the trash, and file the one detailing the notes from the meeting into my “School” folder.  This can take a long time, depending on how many emails you have, and how thorough you want to be.  For some, it’s just as easy to highlight all the emails from the previous year and hit delete.  I am WAY too obsessive to do that.  If you have a lot of emails to get through, take it a little at a time.  While you won’t empty your inbox in the first sitting, you’ll know you are working towards it.

Your inbox is empty!!  Wait, sorry…just checked, there are five more emails.  This is the most crucial time in keeping your inbox empty.  This is the make it or break it point.  It would be so easy to read the emails and leave them there, but then our purpose would be defeated.  You have to face it.  That’s where my “Follow Up” and “Hold” folders come into play.  As you go through your emails, anything you can do in less than three minutes…do now and file the email.  Anything that you can respond to right away, respond to and file the email.  Newsletters and emails from stores and such…look them over, and then delete them.  If you need to purchase something from the shop or want information from their page, bookmark it.  Emails that have you waiting on something, but you don’t need to do anything about it, go into the “Hold” folder.  This folder often holds receipts of items I am waiting to receive, or notices of shipment.  Any email that requires you to do something that will take longer than three minutes, goes into the follow up folder (and ideally, onto your to do list).  After you have done this, your email inbox SHOULD be empty.  Take a minute.  Look it over.  Isn’t it nice and clean?  It’s like a clean bathroom…it just makes you feel happy.  Just like any clean bathroom, however, your empty inbox requires daily maintenance and upkeep. Like I said earlier, in order to keep your inbox empty, you have to commit to doing these tasks with every email.  If you leave even one in your inbox, you are on the downward spiral to 3,000 emails in your inbox.  Believe me, I’ve been there too.

My system of keeping a clean inbox is inspired by the readings I have done in “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and by THIS POST over at Lifehacker.  It’s important to remember that not every system works for everyone.  It’s important to find what works for you and go with it.

So tell me what you think?  Is an empty email inbox important to you?  How do you keep your inbox clean and working efficiently?  Let me know in the comments!

Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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11 Responses to Time Management Series: What Do You Mean Your Inbox is Empty?

  1. koalamama says:

    I’m actually fairly obsessive about emptying my inbox. I don’t have a ‘hold’ folder, though, just ‘saved’, typically my ‘hold’ emails stay in my inbox until they’re obsolete, then they go into the trash. I’m diggin’ the idea of a ‘hold’ folder!

    • Aaron aka Sir Scrapalot says:

      I’m glad you like it…it’s really made a difference in how I sort and save my emails…plus it’s nice to have a place for those unnamed emails.

  2. koalamama says:

    I’m actually fairly obsessive about emptying my inbox. I don’t have a ‘hold’ folder, though, just ‘saved’, typically my ‘hold’ emails stay in my inbox until they’re obsolete, then they go into the trash. I’m diggin’ the idea of a ‘hold’ folder!

    • Aaron aka Sir Scrapalot says:

      I’m glad you like it…it’s really made a difference in how I sort and save my emails…plus it’s nice to have a place for those unnamed emails.

  3. Rachel says:

    Hi Aaron, I'm embarrassed to say that my e-mail time and time again gets into a complete mess. I know what I should do, but I guess I put it to the bottom of the pile while I do everything else with my work. I read e-mails, and if they need no action I quickly close them and move on and get busy elsewhere. For e.g you suggest to delete a store newsletter after you have read it if you don't intend to purchase, good idea ROFL!! I swear right now I have 9000 e-mails in my box and 3K of them are not read, as they are junk and I just haven't had the time to get rid of them. Guess what I'm doing tomorrow?!! I did get them under control a few times and I admit I love that clean empty box feeling!! I SHOULD spend the extra few minutes it would take to deal with them or delete them as they come in, now I have a whole days worth, okay hopefully a few hours worth of work to do. Thanks for kicking my ass lolz I'm going to trial your system suggestion and see how I get on LOL xoxo

  4. SirScrapalot says:

    OMG…don't beat yourself up!! Mine gets out of control from time to time as well. When it gets crazy like that, I always like to take it little chunks at a time. That way it doesn't make me crazy sitting there for hours on end. Let me know how it all works out!

  5. Jennifer says:

    Inbox zero is my goal as well and I get there quite often…using a bit of a streamlined system. I use Gmail with no folders (i.e. labels). Items for immediate follow up stay in my inbox until completed. Short term follow up emails get added to my task list (with the email attached). 'Hold' items get a star and are then archived. Everything else gets archived or deleted. I've never lost an email using this system — because search is just amazing.

  6. SirScrapalot says:

    That's a good plan, and at the perfect time. I am in the process of switching over to gmail for everything, and I am glad to hear your method so that maybe I can use something similar.

  7. Aly Truman says:

    I was gone for 3 weeks and ended up with 500+ emails and I haven't really taken the time to delete. I love having nothing in there and am going to try this plan! I will let you know in an hour or two if it worked : )

  8. Aly Truman says:

    I use gmail…what is task list? I want to figure that out because it sounds great

  9. SirScrapalot says:

    Check out this link: http://mail.google.com/mail/help/tasks/ I think it will help!

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