Finish Your Work Day With An Empty Inbox

Recently, I started a new consultant assignment. One of the first things I did was to fire up Outlook and create the folder structure I always use these days to manage my e-mail, in my professional as well as in my personal life.

Sometimes I hear co-workers and friends complain about difficulties with finding old e-mail messages. Then, when I glance at their e-mail applications, I often see inboxes containing a huge number of messages. One of my former managers had 15,000+ messages in hers. That large collection would often cause her worries. At the same time, it slowed down the application and made it a tedious task trying to retrieve any specific message out of the pile. In situations like that, it may be tempting to select all and press delete, just to get rid of the problem. But, in general, that is probably not the best solution. 🙂

Getting an empty inbox is definitely possible for anyone. In this post I will explain the structure I use. Hopefully, it may inspire others and be of practical use. The metod is built on a process described by David Allen in his book ”Getting Things Done”.

The four main folders

To begin with, I will set up the following folders, which are the foundation of my e-mail management:

  • 02 ACTION
  • 03 PENDING
  • 04 ARCHIVE

The initial numbering serves the purpose of getting the folders arranged in the desired order, since most e-mail applications will order the folders alphabetically/numerically.

01 FIVE WEEKS: This is the place for messages that may need to be kept for reference for a shorter period of time, but then can be discarded. I usually apply a rule to this folder, which ensures that any message older than five weeks is automatically deleted, hence its name. If you like, you can think of this folder as a ”trash bin deluxe”.

02 ACTION: Here you place all messages that bring some kind of action with them. It may be a job to be completed, a phone call to be made, a meeting to be booked, etc. Of course it will be important to review this folder on a regular basis, to make sure that the action items will actually be completed. If you want to, you can also flag the messages and set a calendar date on each task. Once a task has been completed, the message is moved to another folder.

03 PENDING: This folder is for messages that need a follow-up of some kind later in time. Often, it’s an action item which is not yet ready to start working on. As with the former folder, it is important to have a routine for making sure that the contents of the PENDING folder are regularly reviewed. Once it is ready for an action of some kind, it should be moved to another folder, e.g. ACTION.

04 ARCHIVE: This folder is the home of all messages that need to be stored for future reference. You may want to set up sub-folders for various categories inside the archive, which is something I do, too. However, it’s a good idea to limit the number of sub-folders to avoid the need for categorizing one’s messages in excess. After all, most of us are not trained librarians and lack the knowledge of formal classification schemes. Better keep it simple and use the built-in search feature of the e-mail application. Some people refrain from using sub-folders altogether, place everything into their ARCHIVE and rely on the search. This is the approach promoted by e-mail services such as Gmail.

In addition to the four main folders described, you will also have the common ones at your disposal:

SENT ITEMS: Here are copies of the messages you sent.

DRAFTS: Here are copies of the messages you are working on, but have not yet sent.

OUTBOX: This is a temporary place for messages about to be sent.

DELETED ITEMS: This is the trash bin. Here you place any message that does not need to be saved. Thanks to having introduced the FIVE WEEKS folder, we can confidently empty the trash at any time without the fear of losing anything important. Now, isn’t that nice?

Some advice for working in this structure

Make sure you have a routine to ensure that you will regularly follow up on messages in ACTION and PENDING. If you wish, you can have your e-mail application remind you. Alternatively, you can add reminders in your calendar, that will tell you to do this task at certain times, e.g. in the morning and in the late afternoon.

Don’t forget to move messages once you have handled them. In many cases, a message will initially go into PENDING, and then to ACTION. As soon as the task has been completed, the message can go to ARCHIVE or FIVE WEEKS (or possibly even to the trash bin in case it’s not needed anymore).

The aim is to catch anything that lands in your inbox, and make sure it’s passed to the appropriate folder as soon as possible. Think about your physical mailbox at home. Once you have collected the mail, you would not put it back into the mailbox, right? Treat your e-mail inbox in the same way, and you will discover that you will be able to get it empty at times. You may decide to have a clean inbox by the end of each work day. Or perhaps before you leave your workplace for the weekend.

Don’t attempt to keep your inbox empty at all times. You would become a slave under the structure, which would clearly be against its purpose. Of course it’s fine to keep stuff in your inbox while you work on them, or prior to deciding what to do next.

All right, but I’ve got like 5,000 messages in my inbox already…

Yeah, that’s not uncommon. If you want to try working in the structure I’ve described, but you have lots of legacy messages in your inbox, there is a good way of getting started without losing inspiration due to ”old luggage”.

Set up an additional folder named ”OLD INBOX” or similar. Move everything from your inbox into it. Hey presto, you’ve got an empty inbox! Who said that creating structure is a difficult task? 🙂

Well, you will still need to manage the items in the old inbox. But you can do it in steps, which is the good thing. It will relieve you from some of the pressure. The old messages will not be jamming your inbox anymore, which should inspire you to use the new structure for new messages that arrive. No more bad conscience. On the contrary: you are now on a very structured path. It’s worth a pat on the shoulder, don’t you think?

Finding the structure that suits you

This structure has served me well for several years. I hope it will be of use for you, too. It is, however, important to note that people have different preferences. What works for me may not work for you. My advice is to try and see what structure works best for you.

Good luck creating a structure for managing your inbox!