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I have run my business affairs for as long as I can remember around my task list, calendar and – as soon as it was widely available – e-mail. It has been my method of organizing my day, ensuring priorities and projects are completed and very few (if any) details fall through the cracks. But was I keeping an empty inbox? Not quite.

The challenge has been to update and modify my behaviors as new technologies are developed and become widely used. Although I have done reasonably well in the realms of my task list and calendar, e-mail has always been a bit of a challenge. When I first started using e-mail, it was the exclusive domain of business people sharing “important” business information. As time marched on, it became more prevalent for personal correspondence to the point that today it is often our primary mode of communication. The result is an inbox that contains dozens, hundreds or thousands of messages; keeping an empty inbox, then, seems like fiction.

The Solution

Recently I have been reading about folks keeping an empty inbox; quite honestly, that seemed unrealistic. Personally I was always pleased with an inbox that took less than a full screen to display. In fact, I have a regularly recurring task to “Clean Up Email.”

But as I have read interesting blogs posts from online mentors like Michael Hyatt on email management or just starting fresh and Craig Jarrow (the Time Management Ninja) on email behaviors (habits), I decide that YES…I could have an empty inbox. What I discovered is the process is not as difficult as it first appears; the key is implementing a  5 step process to an empty inbox.

Step 1: Choose a Path

Are you going to start fresh or are you going to fix the current situation?

My natural tendency is to try and fix things that aren’t working. However, if that is part of what is holding you back in your efforts at keeping an empty inbox, Michael discusses a methodology for declaring email bankruptcy and giving yourself a fresh start. But if you are starting fresh, do steps 2 and 3 first to prevent the chance that the problem will reoccur.

Step 2: Determine Where You Are

Begin by figuring out how bad things really are:

  • How many messages are sitting in your inbox?
  • How old are the oldest messages?
  • How many new messages do you receive each day?
  • What are the broad categories of emails that don’t get processed? (E.g. task based, informational, to be read later, etc.)
  • Do you have a filing/organization/processing system in place?
  • Does it need to be revamped for your current environment and situation?

Once you have a handle on the problem, assuming you are not declaring bankruptcy, set aside a reasonable amount of time to address the problem. Taking 30 – 60 seconds per message may not seem like much, but when you discover large chunks can be easily deleted, the average processing time will be much less than you might first anticipate. You may need to allocate several chunks of time before the inbox is completely empty, but if you stay on it, you will get there before you know it!

Step 3: Implement the Tools You Need

Often a full inbox is a symptom of other issues. During my analysis I discovered that much that was sitting fell into two huge categories: one was emails related to tasks and the other was information that I wanted to read at a later time.

Both of these could be solved by better utilizing the apps and technology that I already use.

With a bit of research I discovered that I could link tasks directly to my task management application, ToDoist. I have no idea how long this feature has been available, but it quickly allows me to create a task tied to an email and then I can move the email to a “processing” folder.

Also I took the advice in Craig’s post about Evernote and started forwarding emails I was keeping for reference into Evernote. It is a much more appropriate application for that type of information. Once forwarded, they can be deleted!

I already had a reasonable filing/archive system in place, but you may need to implement that type of system as well. Also make sure you use your email system’s rule feature to automatically move or process certain types of emails out of your inbox automatically. That way you’ll be sure that you can maintain the process of keeping an empty inbox.

Step 4: Clean It Out

Whether you are starting fresh or processing everything currently in the inbox, the next step is to just do it. In some cases a combination of both might be the answer. For example, bulk archive anything more than 1 – 3 months old and then only process the emails that remain.

If you need help thinking through the processing options and haven’t done so yet, take a few minutes to read Michael’s post. Whether it takes a few hours or chunks of time over several days, making the commitment to work on it until it is done is key!

Step 5: Maintain the New Status Quo

Once the inbox is empty, it won’t stay that way for long! The trick is to set a schedule or task to ensure that you take the time to empty your inbox before the end of each day.

Use you new tools to speed up processing and watch for trends if messages begin to start piling up. If a new trend appears, then implement a new method/process/application to manage those types of messages.

Setting a schedule of reading email only a few times a day is one method that works for many folks. For others, turning off the “notification” allows them to only focus on email when they are actually ready to process it.

Ultimately, the real trick is to make the empty inbox the new status quo and anything less is just not acceptable.

What has been your biggest struggle with keeping an empty inbox?