I’ll never forget the time I was checking my email on a desktop computer when my sister walked up behind me and upon seeing the screen exclaimed: “Holy crap, you keep a zero inbox?” Why yes. Yes I do. And I remember the day many years ago when I discovered an article online about how to keep your inbox empty – I read it thoroughly and never looked back. Over the years I’ve tweaked that system to make it work best for me, and now after all this time I want to share it with you. While my method probably won’t work for you exactly as is, my hope is that you’ll be able to tweak it and make it your own.
Rule #1: Maintain a set of folders.
You should have a minimum of two folders: “follow up” and “hold.” Let me explain what each of these means.
“Follow up” basically means that you need to do something or take some action, before that email can be deleted or archived. For example, let’s say you receive an email from one of your students, asking you a question. In that case, you would need to reply to that email and answer the question before you can delete or archive that email. Or perhaps you receive an email about an upcoming rehearsal that has PDFs of the sheet music attached. In that case, you would need to look over and practice that music before you can delete that email. You get the idea. Basically a “follow up” email equals a task that needs to be accomplished.
The “hold” folder on the other hand is a bit different. This is an email which signifies that you are waiting for something – a person to reply, a package to arrive, or simply time to pass. For example, let’s say someone emails you with a question, but you can’t reply and answer that question until you hear back from someone else. In that case, it would make sense to put that email in the hold folder until you hear from that second person and can answer the first person’s question. Or let’s suppose you’re waiting for a package to arrive. Putting your shipping confirmation email in your hold folder will ensure that if something happens and your package doesn’t arrive as scheduled, you’ll notice because it’s been kept on your mental radar. Or finally, if you receive an email about registering for an event or purchasing tickets to a show you want to see – but you can’t register or purchase tickets until a certain date – that would be a perfect email to put in your hold folder until that date comes to pass and you can proceed.
I myself keep four folders: web follow-up (tasks related to my web design business), music follow-up (tasks related to my music career), personal follow-up (things that are non-work related), and hold (as described above). How many folders you keep as part of your system is entirely up to you.
Rule #2: Decide what to do with an email right away.
First ask yourself, does this email signify that I need to do anything? If not, delete it immediately. This is also a good moment to mention that if you are receiving any emails that you don’t want to be receiving – such as promotional emails from clothing companies, etc. – you should open them as soon as you get them, scroll to the bottom, find the text that says “unsubscribe,” and click it. Might as well do it now. This keeps unwanted messages in your inbox to a bare minimum. The next question you should ask yourself is, can I deal with this email right now or does it have to wait until later? If you can respond to the email immediately, then do so – and then either archive or delete that email, depending on whether or not you need to save it for reference later on. If you can’t respond to the email immediately, then it goes straight into one of your follow-up folders. Then it will be dealt with later on when you have a chance to get to it.
Rule #3 (most importantly): Look in all of your maintained folders daily – at a minimum.
Ok, so you’ve made all these folders with different labels and now when you receive emails, you immediately either delete them, archive them, reply to them, or file them. As wonderful and as great an accomplishment as this is, it isn’t going to do you a bit of good if you never look inside your newly labeled folders. Herein lies the key of this entire system. It’s imperative that you click on and observe the contents of all of your folders at least once a day – hopefully more than that. Personally, I’ve developed a habit of simply looking in all of my folders every time I check my email. This way I continue to have my tasks on my mental radar at all times.
And if you’re someone who would like to see all your folders’ content at the same time in columns across the page, then this might be the thing for you: I’ve just learned about a cool new app called Drag. In a sentence, Drag allows you to transform Gmail into organized lists. If you’ve ever used Trello for project management, you could think of Drag as “Trello for Gmail.” Check it out HERE.
So you can see that if you follow the guidelines listed above – there’s really no need for an email to ever be sitting in your inbox. All emails are either deleted, archived, or filed for later – end of story. It might seem too simple to be true, but it’s really not. I’ve been doing it for the past eight years or so and it hasn’t failed me once. Best of luck!