What is it? Why should you care about it?
Inbox zero is the idea that each message coming into your inbox is a new message. When your inbox is at zero, you won't have any messages that you need to read or sort through.
You don't need zero messages to reach organizational happiness, but you should have a place for every email that comes to you.
It isn't easy. With email being the primary method of communication, you can become overwhelmed with the amount of “URGENT” messages flooding in.
There are a ton of strategies, tools and apps to help you tame your inbox monster:
Organize Your Mail: What You Need to Know
If your inbox is a mess, it's unlikely to ever be perfect, and that's ok. Before you get started, think about your goals. Do you want to make your email more manageable? Are you losing emails and wanting a better system for finding them? When you start organizing, you should have some goals in mind. That way, you'll be able to stick to your goals, rather than the simple goal of a 'clean inbox.'
How to Organize Email - Start Deciding
The first step to organizing your inbox is to have a place to put your emails once you’re 'done' with them. The best way to do this is to create a filing system. It isn’t as difficult as it sounds, even if you’re starting from scratch.
My definition of being 'done' with an email? I've already taken an action on it: replied, accepted a meeting request, or finished a task. Once I've finished with an email, I keep it filed for about a month, in case I need to reference it later. For bigger projects that are ongoing, I keep them longer.
How to Create an Email Filing System
A filing system is helpful for organizing emails so that if you need to go back to something, you can quickly find it. It also helps to keep important emails that you're currently dealing with from being lost in the shuffle!
Step 1: Quickly scan your emails and create a list of “big” categories. For instance:
Step 2: Create sub-folders for these categories, if needed.
Step 3: Start filing emails into their appropriate folder.
Filing vs. Deleting
Now you might be saying, “How do I know if should file or delete an email?”
If you haven’t touched the email in more than 30 days, and it isn’t something you need to keep a record of (like a copy of a contract), delete it. It clearly has no importance any more, and you don’t need it.
It’s also a good idea to apply this rule to messages that you’ve filed every couple months or so, to make sure that your folders don’t get stuffed with messages that aren’t relevant anymore.
As for when to file the email, it should be after you've performed any actions on it that needed to happen. For instance, the email about your electric bill should be filed AFTER you pay it. If you file it too early, you may forget - and you need your lights on!
Perform the Email Purge
After you have your filing system in place, you’re ready for the time-consuming part. But don’t worry, this will (hopefully) be the only time you need to clean out everything. So grab a coffee, put some fun music on, and start sorting!
Keep in your inbox: Anything that needs a response/action performed that you haven’t dealt with yet. It’s helpful to star or flag these messages, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle later!
File away: Anything that you’ve dealt with in the past 30 days, but may still be important or have information you want to remember/conversations you want to track.
Delete: Anything over 30 days that you haven’t touched and doesn’t contain any SUPER important info.
Keep Your Inbox Clean
Whew! Now that you’ve whittled down your inbox to only the emails that are important, it’s time to make sure it stays that way! Lucky for you, I have some tricks up my sleeve for that as well.
Have emails that are constantly coming into your inbox that aren’t important, but you want to keep (think newsletters, Facebook notifications, and LinkedIn group updates)? Create rules to get them filed, and they’ll skip your inbox all together!
Rules allow you to identify emails by sender, subject line, or recipient, and then have a specific action performed. For example, you can create a rule that any bills you have set up for auto-pay get sent directly to your Accounts Payable folder, so you can review them when you have a minute – and they’re not in your face.
Use Outlook? Click here for directions on how to create rules
Use Gmail? Click here for directions on how to create filters.
Use Mac email? Click here for directions on how to create Apple Mail Rules.
Try Some Email Apps
There are lots of apps and tools out there to help you keep yours under control. Here are a few of my faves:
Unroll.me: This handy helper “rolls up” emails that you receive often into one digest that you can receive at specified time of day. It starts by identifying emails in your inbox that you get often, and allows you to unsubscribe right from the service, add to your roll up, or keep in your inbox. It’s also a lifesaver for personal email.
Boomerang for Gmail and Outlook: Boomerang allows you to schedule replies (so you don’t have 2AM time stamps on your emails if you’re a night owl) and lets you set reminders to follow up with important messages. You can also bring emails back to your inbox when you need them, like travel arrangement details.
Triage (For iPhone): This app presents your emails as a stack of index cards that you can archive or keep in your inbox with a simple swipe. You can use your downtime, like waiting in line at the bank, to clear up the deluge of Monday morning emails.
An important thing to note here is that while email is definitely necessary, there are a whole host of other, larger tools that can help you keep emails in general to a minimum. These tools allow for communication inside the software, and they let you control how many email notifications you get. It's a great way to keep other areas of your business organized, too!
There's plenty of software solutions for every need, and in every price point, so you can find what's perfect for you. Here's a few of our favorites:
If you stay on top of your inbox, and use these tips and tricks, you’ll be basking in Inbox Zen (if not Inbox Zero!) before you know it.
Your turn: How do you keep your inbox organized? What tools and strategies would you add?