Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Empty inbox technique: How to stay on top of your email

Here's the technique I've been using to manage my MS Outlook inbox for the past decade or so.  I call it the "empty inbox", because the idea is to always keep your inbox empty.

Overview:  This technique puts the most important emails in one of two folders and provides regular method for filtering new emails in a way that you don't lose track of them.


1)      Create folders in your inbox called "__TOME", "_TODO", and "_TODO_Personal"

2)      In the folder properties, change these folders to show "total number of items" instead of just the unread items.  (Also do this to the inbox folder)

3)      Create rules to automatically filter common email.    Give the rules names that make them easy to grock.   E.g.:  "Reports (subjects)"  is a rule that moves emails to the reports folder based on the subject.    "Customers (recipients)" is a rule that move email to the Customers folder based on the recipient. 

4)      Create a special rule to move emails sent only to you to the _TOME folder.   This is a really important rule for catching the most important emails.


Daily routine:

1)      Skim through all folders with numbers next to them (except the _TODO folders).

2)      For each folder, if an item needs attention, move it to the appropriate _TODO folder.

3)      Keep doing this until the numbers are gone.   Because inbox and _TOME folders show the total number of items, you will have to move all of the emails.   For other folders, you just need to read the mail.   (Hint: in the reading pane options, I like to check the "Mark items as read when viewed in the reading pane" box and set the wait time to 0 seconds.)

4)      Now you have all your important, actionable emails in two folders.  Use whatever system you want to work on them. 

5)      About once per week, dejunk the _TODO folders by removing finished items or old items you probably won't ever get to.   Try to keep the total number of items under 30. 


Here's an example of my Outlook before and after the daily routine:

Before                                                                  After


(I actually added a folder in this case, which is a somewhat rare occurance.)


So there you go.  I hope that is helpful!