Five Steps for Conquering Your Inbox

Email is a polarizing topic – you either love it or you hate it. Well, come on over to the dark side: the side of loving email. Use these five steps to get that inbox under control and free yourself from the constant guilt of email clutter.


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Step 1: Understand How to Process Incoming Email

Let’s start with the basics: processing your incoming email. When you receive an email into your inbox you should make an immediate decision on it. Ask yourself “is this email: information, a task, or an ongoing project?” If the email doesn’t fit into one of those categories, then you shouldn’t be receiving it – we’ll address that in a bit. Once you’d decide on what category the email fits into, you’ll immediately know what to do with it based on the system you’ve created. This is called the “One Touch Rule.”





We’re going to use my inbox as an example:

InformationOnce I determine the email is information, I flag the email to read later (which is actually a task) and set a reminder. When I have read the information and determined I would like to keep it for a later day, then I file the email. This is most often a summary email from a colleague, interesting article, or information for a project/task at a later date. You can file informational emails in your email folders or you could even forward that email to Evernote to file as a note within a notebook.

Task – My inbox is filled with tasks and tasks only. Once I see the email is something I need to complete, then I flag it – and sometimes even categorize it for extra identification. I try to flag the email with a follow up date that seems appropriate. If I am swamped and acknowledge that this task could wait until next week, I flag it with a followup day of next week. If it must be completed immediately, I flag it with a follow up day of today. If the task is extra important and must be actioned at a specific time, I will set a reminder (pop up alarm) to add an extra level of interaction with the task. These items should be the primary content of your inbox – and nothing more.

Ongoing Project – An ongoing project email is the intersection between the two categories above. You may need to action this item, but not necessary follow up immediately. I will sometimes leave this email in my inbox for a short time frame (less than a week) as a continual reminder of the project. However, once the email has overstayed it’s short welcome I fit it into one of the above categories. I will either action the item by replying with my status update (or asking for a status update), or flag the item to provide a status update at a later time and file the email.


Step 2: Master Processing Your Inbox

There’s a lot of talk out there on the internet about getting to “Inbox Zero.” If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s reducing your inbox down to zero emails by the end of the day. Inbox Zero can also means 0 items in the inbox that currently require attention. Using the system listed above I could have items still in my inbox, but they may be flagged for completion on another date. I leave every work day knowing that I’ve acknowledged and attended to every email – even if that is to decide that I will leave it for another day.

If you are consistently assessing your inbox, filing items and flagging tasks for follow up, then this process is not hard at all. Set aside two 10-15 minute blocks of time to process your inbox if this doesn’t come naturally to you. Actually schedule that time into your calendar and set a reminder. It is just as important as the other tasks you have on your list for the day – and some might even argue that it’s MORE important than what you had planned. If you aren’t replying to your emails, it will impact your work performance.


Step 3: Get Out From Under Your Email

What do you do if you are so buried in email you don’t know where to start? In order to move forward you need to set aside small chunks of time each day to work on the emails coming in and processing old emails that need to go.


Suggestions for reducing the number of incoming emails:

  • Get set up with This is a service that reviews the incoming emails and identifies ones that look like newsletters. It asks you if you want to keep it in your inbox, roll it up into a daily/weekly summary email, or unsubscribe. Once you have determined to “roll it up,” those emails come in a once daily (or weekly) summary email. That should easily cut down 200-500 emails per week – depending on how many companies have your email address.
  • Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, UNSUBSCRIBE.
  • Set up rules for non-critical email. Does your work system send out a notice every week? Or does your bank send you account balance emails? Set up a rule that puts these emails in a specific folder before it hits you inbox.


Clearing out old emails:
  • Use those same rules to sort through current emails in your inbox. Move those bad boys to folders!
  • Use the search function (be sure to use quotes around your search term) for emails you know can go. A great search term is “unsubscribe” – then delete all those emails. You didn’t even know they were there anyway!
  • Schedule time to start moving through your old emails. Begin with the most recent and keep chipping away.

Step 4: Jump on the Email Bandwagon

Email is the primary form of communication for businesses in the modern era of technology and if those who are unable to manage their email inbox will see an impact on their job performance. Clients choose vendors who are quick to reply and supervisors acknowledge employees who efficiently communicate. It may not be your preferred form of communication, but email is here to stay and it’s time to learn to love it. Once you have embraced the good that comes with email, you can reap the benefits. Storing previous communications allows you to jump into a solution quicker, follow up on long overdue projects or payments, and keep your inbox to a minimum. The perks are endless! Email is a tool that should work for you under your control, not the other way around.


Step 5: File All Your Emails, for Heaven’s Sake!

You’ve heard about filing emails a few times, but how does that work? Many productivity experts recommend setting up an automatic blind copy, especially on work email. This will automatically blind copy you on every email sent out. When you are done with the task at hand, file the inbound email (the one you were replying to) and your outbound email (the BCC that just came in) into the appropriate folder. The folder could be the client’s name, the project title, or the month/year. The options are endless for folder systems. This method of filing your sent emails, will allow you to seamlessly process your email and access old communications when necessary. The first time search your emails (remember to use the quotation marks!), you will be in heaven with the ease at which you find what you’re looking for.


Do you need help conquering your inbox? Let’s get started!