Earlier, in highlighting this excellent series at 43 Folders on getting your inbox to zero, I mentioned that I do this. I process all incoming e-mail and keep my inbox at or very near zero messages daily. While I could never match the genius of Merlin (most of the tips and tricks I will state here are taken from his ious posts on the subject) I felt I would break my e-mail fu down for inspiration to those who doubt it is possible.

Now, let me go on to say that there are many out there (Princess Bethany for instance) that function perfectly well with a few hundred e-mails in their inbox. That may work for you and you are not overwhelmed by that kind of e-mail pile. It is OK. I’m keepin’ it real. There is no right or wrong. No shame or blame.

I was not one of those people. I used to average 300 plus e-mails in my inbox. Some of them languishing for weeks before I got to them and responded in some way, if I got to them at all. Most often I would forget I even got that simple client question or e-mail from a friend I have not corresponded with in a while. Basically, a lot of balls were often dropped because I was never really certain what really needed my attention and what was just noise.

Here is what I did to get back in control:

First step… Get to know your “Delete” key. It is in a three way tie with for the best productivity tool ever with the Trash Can and the word “No”. You will use this key for a vast majority of the e-mail that you receive. The junk, the special offers from the companies you have purchased products from, the joke e-mails that your “friends” blast you with – all of these should be blasted into the ether almost as soon as you receive them (of course, you could always unsubscribe and tell your friends to take you off those ridiculous mailings to begin with).

Next, the setup. I basically use a version that was originally outlined in and article in Macworld magazine by Merlin Mann titled “The inbox makeover”. My setup is an almost exact duplicate of that one so go check it out for the fine details. I have the following folders on my IMAP account so it is the same no matter what computer I am using:

Inbox – Where it all comes in. I respond to the ones that take a minute or less when processing
@Action – For anything requiring a quick response that I don’t do as soon as it comes in
@Hold – Receipts, shipping confirmations, or anything I want to hold for a short period before archiving.
@Respond – For anything that requires a longer than 2 minute response or further research before responding.
@Waiting – For items that require something from someone else before I can respond.
Archive – Everything ends up here.

See, I told you it was a copy of Merlin’s system. It does have one slight modification. I have swapped the uses of Action and Respond as those terms make more sense to me this way. Also, the “@” signs are simply there to make things sort above the Archive folder, otherwise Apple’s Mail insists on sorting alphabetically.

Here is how this works in practice:

  1. E-mail arrives in the Inbox.
  2. I evauate the e-mail and decide if I should delete it, archive it, sort it into one of the other folders or reply to it.
  3. If it requires a quick reply, and I have the time, I reply to it and then Archive it.
  4. If this is not the case then it is sorted into one of the other folders as appropriate. For instance, if it requires a short response I stick it in the Action folder, longer responses in the Respond folder, etc. I cull these folders regularly as time allows. If I get a 15 minute chunk of time then I go through my Action folder and fire away at those for instance.
  5. Once an e-mail is responded to it is moved into Archive.

I also use some other strategies to keep things under control. For instance, not checking my e-mail regularly. I have my mail program check for new mail once an hour. That way, I can process in chunks rather than nibbling away at each mail as it arrives like some sort of Pavlovian experiment. I check my e-mail at the office even less frequently. The urgent stuff there people call me for anyway. I also use my Gmail account for most online signups in order to reduce the semi-junk (special offers and announcements) I receive and I only check that every few days. I use filters to sort the couple of mailing lists I am on and run through those as time allows.

The bottom line is that every email that comes in has some sort of decision made about what to do with it and dealt with accordingly. This starts with the simplest of questions – “Does this require action?” If the answer is no then I delete or archive it immediately. That reduces a good 60% of the e-mail that comes into my Inbox. If the answer is “yes” then I make strategic choices based on time and resources on how to respond to the e-mail.

It really is that simple my friends.