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MailappiconTo my mind, one of the universal problems of living in this digital age is having to deal with the massive barrage of email that’s sent our way on a daily basis. With the rise of essentially unlimited storage in our email accounts, it’s easy to stumble into a massive, unruly inbox.

Case in point: this time last year, I had more than 20,000 emails in my personal inbox. They ran the gamut from newsletters, to coupons, to notes from friends and family. I hadn’t cleaned out my inbox since I opened my Gmail account in 2004.

To a degree, it worked for me. I just needed to scroll through or search my list of messages for the one I was looking for, and act on it accordingly. But every once in a while, a message would get buried if I didn’t act on it immediately. That’s fine for cat videos, but letting an important message slip through the cracks had serious consequences. Finally, come March, I realized that enough was enough, and I needed to get to Inbox Zero.

Here’s how to make it happen:

Step 1: Get to Zero

Sort in bulk to save yourself some serious grief.
Sort in bulk to save yourself some serious grief.

If you have an overstuffed inbox, your first step is to get all of the stuff that doesn’t need to be there out of it (and there’s a lot that doesn’t need to be there).

Here are some of the pitfalls that I’ve found when taking steps towards cleaning out an inbox:

  • Trying to sort into too many folders: It’s really tempting to build a whole complex nested file structure for every email that you get, so that everything has a place, but in my experience, it’s not worth the extra time it takes to file everything away.
  • Trying to sort through every email in an overstuffed inbox: Especially if you have tens of thousands of emails waiting for your attention, it’s just not worth the time it takes to sort every one by hand.

When I needed to empty my inbox, I started by picking a date three months prior, after which everything else would disappear into Gmail’s archive. Then, I got searching. Everything from 2006 went into one folder, 2007 into another, and so on. That way, I didn’t need to worry about whether I was deleting something important or potentially useful in the future.

I have yet to need an email from 2006. Doing comprehensive sorting would have taken hours, and it wouldn’t have provided me with any truly appreciable benefits. Instead, I had my inbox mostly cleared out in about 45 minutes, and could spend another hour or two going through three months’ worth of emails: first by getting rid of the stuff I knew I didn’t need, like mass mailings and coupons, and then going through the remaining messages by hand. All told, it took me probably 3 or 4 hours to trim my inbox down from five figures to zero.

Step 2: Build an email workflow that consistently gets messages out of your inbox

[resolutions]Once you’re at zero, it’s a lot easier to stay there, but only if you don’t fall back into the old way of just keeping everything in your inbox. You need to make the conscious choice to work at keeping it clean.

Here’s what I’ve found to be the absolute best way to maintain both my productivity and the emptiness of my inbox: I don’t use my inbox as a stand-in for my to-do list. It’s so easy to do that, because so many of us live and die by our emails, but managing a separate to-do list will keep your inbox clean, and keep tasks easily accessible.

For emails that require me to take an action (like writing an article, or taking out the trash) and then respond, I send them to an “Action” folder in my inbox. After that, I add a pair of actions to my to-do list. The first reminds me to do whatever it is, and the second reminds me to respond to the email and move it out of the Action folder into my archive.

That way, my inbox is clear, and I have clear steps set up to complete the task.

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 4.44.04 PM

The other big inbox clogger: the messages that I just can’t respond to right away. We’ve all been there: you’re at work, completely snowed in, and your buddy emails you to ask if you can watch his wombat for a week, and you just don’t have time to deal with it.

mailbox-logo-bigTo combat that, I use the Mailbox app’s ability to delay a message for a set amount of time so that it bounces back into my inbox when I’m more likely to be available. I’ve also had success moving messages I can’t yet deal with into a “Later” folder, and reviewing the contents of that folder when I have time.

Finally, if there are unread messages that are in your inbox, but you don’t need to read them, or do anything about them, archive them! They’ll still be searchable, and won’t be taking up space in the meantime. The best rule of thumb to work by is that you want to process email out of your inbox, rather than letting it sit there and take up space.

Step 3: Tune your system to fit your needs.

Photo by Gianmaria Parodi on Flickr.
Photo by Gianmaria Parodi on Flickr.

Circumstances change. Maybe that mess of folders you thought would be critical to keeping you organized isn’t necessary after all. Perhaps, what you want are more or different folders, or a different email client altogether.

Especially if you start slipping back into a bigger and bigger inbox, ask yourself: “what can I do to improve my workflow?” The whole goal of managing your inbox is making sure that your email works for you, and not the other way around.

Personally, I’m working to simplify my folder structure. I have nested folders for a bunch of different automatic mailings that I get, and I just don’t need to keep them around anymore, so I’m working on rolling them into one large archive that I can search in the future.

Again, the less time you spend managing your email, the more time you can devote to really doing things.

Bonus: Employ automation to help keep you at zero

There are a lot of companies looking to find ways to get your inbox clean, which means that there’s no shortage of options for tools to manage your mail. One of my personal favorites right now is Unroll.me, which pulls all of the newsletters, advertisements, and other subscription-driven oddities out of your mailbox and into a single digest email that you get once a day.

logo-sanebox-2013-xmas-52f5770c4d09ac16f547252f417a53b5As I mentioned above, the Mailbox app is my client of choice when it comes to managing email on iOS, especially because of its delay functionality. If you’re willing to shell out a few bucks a month, SaneBox provides even more robust filtering that helps keep mail you don’t need to pay attention to out of your inbox, along with a whole host of other features.

So, there you are: my guide to getting yourself to Inbox Zero, and staying there. Are there any tips you didn’t see but make your workflow? Let us know in the comments. Be sure to check out our first New Year’s Tech Resolution guide on building a robust backup system, and check back for our next installment on learning how to code.

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