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I find I often have an overflowing email inbox. Are there any methods or systems to help efficiently and effectively filter through, sort, and reply to emails?

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First 2 points in my answer here: productivity.stackexchange.com/questions/94/…. Tell me if that's enough or not enough detail and I'll post a bigger answer here –  Dmitry Selitskiy Jun 30 '11 at 19:27
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10 Answers

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Inbox Zero: Overcoming E-mail Overload

The usual admonitions (refrain from "reply all", keep responses short, etc.) are about keeping the problem from getting worse. Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero is a system that can actually help solve the problem, and it starts with a basic axiom:

"Your inbox is not a to-do list;
it is for unprocessed e-mail,
and its default state is EMPTY."

As I see it, Inbox Zero has three cardinal rules:

Don't allow e-mail to interrupt your train of thought. Turn off instant notification and instead process your e-mail in bursts at times that are convenient for you. That might be every 30 minutes or it might be once a day, depending on your situation.

Process your e-mail, don't check it. Any message, once read, must be processed, which means making one of six possible choices. Consider them in this order:

  1. Delete. Learn to do this without remorse and it will change your life. Copied on something that doesn't concern you? DELETE. Seven e-mails in a chain that's already resolved by the time you read them? DELETE all seven.

  2. Archive. Anything that does not require action, but needs to be saved gets dumped into a single folder labeled "Archive." I got rid of my byzantine folder structure when Outlook introduced indexed search. Now that you can search all your folders at once, you can easily find something no matter where you've stashed it. If you're a person who believes in folders, this may sound chaotic, but try it for two weeks: use search instead of your folder hierarchy to find archived e-mails. I tried it and never went back, and now when I want to archive something it takes one second to drag it into a single Archive folder, not 30 seconds to think about where it best "belongs."

  3. Delegate. When I delegate by forwarding an e-mail (and then deleting the original), I bcc myself and use a rule to automatically forward the bcc to a "waiting" folder. Periodically, I check to see if I need to light a fire under someone and to delete what's been closed.

  4. Reply. If I can answer an e-mail in less than two minutes, I reply right away. (If a lengthy, thoughtful response or some research is warranted, see choice #6, "Do.") Once I've responded, I delete the original, which is now embedded with my response in "Sent Items". One copy is enough.

  5. Defer. This option is to be avoided as much as possible. When I get an e-mail I can't even read in two minutes, I drag it to a "defer" folder. I get back to deferred e-mails when everything else is processed and put them in another category by day's end. (Note: I actually have a "long-term defer" folder as well, for stuff that isn't time sensitive.)

  6. Do. Once I've gotten this far, I actually have to do something about the message. I determine the action and write it down in a notebook. If I ultimately need to reply to the original message it goes into an "in work" folder. Otherwise, I delete or archive it.

Process to zero (i.e. empty your inbox). Obviously, you have to be flexible, but the goal, especially at the end of the day, is to have zero messages in your inbox.


If you're interested in the canonical source, Merlin's original blog posts were also linked above and his ideas delightfully presented in the classic Inbox Zero video.

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Implementing an Archive it is merely an excuse to store things (attachments, passwords, self-mailed things, important documents, order confirmations, ...) in your inbox. Archiving is part of the Do action, where you save the attachment (simple rightclick, copy the password to OneNote (simple hotkey), print or save the order confirmation and so on. These really don't take 30 seconds, the moment you know that it should be archived you know what the e-mail is about and where it actually belongs. If you don't know, you simply haven't made a place for it. Your inbox is not that place... –  Tom Wijsman Jul 1 '11 at 2:28
    
Defer is meant to result in actionable appointments and tasks, not mails you have to check again what they were about. Keeping them in a separate folder away from any to do implementation makes you lose focus, context, time and energy of them... –  Tom Wijsman Jul 1 '11 at 2:41
    
@Tom For the record, Merlin's original Inbox Zero talk discusses delete and archive as flavors of the same decision. Now obviously that doesn't mean it's the best solution, but I was trying to summarize and embellish his original points. I agree many things (attachments, PWs, etc.) are better stored out of email--so good point. That said, I keep lots of email where the important content is the email and its associated meta-data (e.g. recipients, date sent, etc.) This applies if email is used for electronic approvals; the emailed approvals need to be kept for the record, even if never needed). –  Adam Wuerl Jul 2 '11 at 17:07
    
@Tom I agree in principle that defer is a dangerous category--and Merlin says the same thing in the original Google Tech Talk. But I've found it to be hugely helpful in practice. I get emails that are going to take more than 2 minutes to read and review before I can even determine a next action. I find it simpler to place these in a defer folder to tackle at the end of my processing burst than to put into my GTD system. I've also found this helps me process faster. When I'm in the mode of quickly determining next actions I don't link transitioning to thoughtful reading of dense materials. –  Adam Wuerl Jul 2 '11 at 17:11
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+1 Sounds reasonable, those 2 minutes can wait till the right moment and if your in the habit of checking that folder as your overall processing technique then it's indeed reasonable to do it that way. It also kind of depends on the e-mail and GTD tools that are being used, the type of e-mails you get and so on... :) –  Tom Wijsman Jul 2 '11 at 21:18
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The Inbox Zero methodology is by far the most effective system that I know, especially because it works on all e-mail systems.

If you have the luxury of using Gmail, then you must absolutely enable Priority Inbox & Smart Labels. These two systems in combination are incredibly powerful for automatically filtering and prioritizing your e-mail messages for you, so you can more efficiently process them. It's basically the first step of Inbox Zero done for you by the Googleplex.

You might also consider using Shortmail, which limits inbound and outbound messages to 400 characters. This forces a concision of writing that can be very valuable for busy people.

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Even if you don't have the time or inclination to set up a complex set of filters or smart mailboxes, a simple thing you can do to reduce the size of your inbox is to act on every email. (Note: I agree with many of the other answers about checking your email on a schedule that works for you - every half hour, hour or whatever rather than looking at each email as it comes in.)

If you know right away that it's not important (spam, marketing material, etc.), delete it right away.

If it is marked "urgent" or "high priority" by the sender - or includes a phrase like "immediate response requested" or "action needed" in the subject line - read it and respond to it immediately. Then archive or delete the original message.

If it's a meeting, put it on your calendar, immediately.

For emails that require an action but aren't urgent, move to a to-do list. Just be sure to set aside time every day (either first thing in the morning or right after lunch works well for me) to address your to-do list.

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If you are using Gmail I use priority inbox, plus a GTD-like system using multiple inboxes.

Here is a blog post where I explain how to do it, although I do need to write a follow-up about using it with Priority Inbox: http://jaderobbins.com/2010/01/getting-things-done-in-gmail/

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If you use Microsoft Outlook, ClearContext (clearcontext.com) is a fabulous tool that makes processing very efficient. Is has some additional excellent functionality too, but even just using it to streamline your processing would be a benefit.

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Inbox Zero helps you work your Inbox towards zero e-mails, it will thus help you handle all your e-mails.

The best way would be to watch the video Reaching Inbox Zero, it's an hour though...

It is accompanied by a slide show, and his articles on 43 folders.

A concise introduction:

  • Your goal is to convert your mails to actions, and when they are done they are gone.

    For example, if you have a mail with an attachment or important information you want to keep...
    Do not keep or archive it!
    Instead, save the files to disk and save the important information to a program like EverNote.

  • When you receive a mail, you simply keep 5 actions at thumb and pick one of them:

    • Delete (If it's useless, just get rid of it!)
    • Delegate (If it's for someone else, send it to him and delete it.)
    • Respond (Answer and delete it, your answer will be the next task.)
    • Defer (Sometimes, you can't do things right now, create an appointment/task, delete the mail.)
    • Do (Sometimes, you can just do it now, do it and delete the mail.)
  • In case you need to temporarily archive a massage, place them in a folder Done instead of deleting them. Don't archive attachments and important information, they should be at a better place...

Which yields the following result:

  • No more searching through mails!
  • Appointments and Tasks where they should be!
  • A clear view over it!
  • All your mail-related actions done!
  • Less time spent at your Inbox!
  • Your data at the right place, organized!
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To maintain an empty Gmail inbox I star emails requiring an action. Whenever I check my email, I process the entire inbox using keyboard shortcuts for speed, archiving (y), deleting (#) and starring (s) if necessary. You can use this method in any email client by moving emails to a folder or marking them in some way, but getting them out of your inbox is the key. –  Dan H Jun 30 '11 at 20:20
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GMail has customizable filters you can use to have your messages organized automatically. It takes some time at first but it's easy to keep it updated. I have tags for 'Facebook' and 'Friends' that never go to my inbox but are automatically archived. I know something arrived because the tag turns bold and shows the amount of unread messages.

enter image description here The main tags used.

Setting up an automated tag requires you to fill one or more of the options: 'From', 'To', 'Subject', 'Has the words' and 'Doesn't have'. Then you have to choose how all the messages in these criterias are going to be sorted.

enter image description here

It's safer than using a software or external online service and all your archived messages will be right there sorted with your tags.

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Well, if you're on gmail, your best bet is to archive stuff as soon as you read it.

Also, do you get newsletters and frequent emais frOm google groups or websites like engadget then unsubscribe from those and get yourself rss feeds of them. They're easier to handle in google reader.

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One way is a 2 folder system:

  • Folder 1 stuff that you need to keep
  • Folder 2 stuff that is not need after a while, auto delete after for example 3 months

That way old mails that are no longer needed get deleted without any effort on your part.got

I got this idea from this podcast: http://www.hanselminutes.com/default.aspx?showID=253

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I never let my inbox get longer than 1 screen, to ensure I don't lose anything important:

As emails come in I strip out all attachments and store in a filesystem that mirrors my mail folders. Then I file all emails that don't need immediate action, but mark as unread. The others I respond to and then file.

The benefit of this setup is I can always see what requires action.

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Seems like Inbox Zero, but then an own invented light version of it... :) –  Tom Wijsman Jun 30 '11 at 19:26
    
+1 for storing the attachments in a filesystem that mirrors your mail folder. Great idea! –  tehnyit Jun 30 '11 at 19:56
    
could you please clarify why the filesystem archive of attachments, other than saving email inbox space? –  tomeduarte Jul 2 '11 at 10:03
    
@tomeduarte - saves space, and forces you to notice every attachment. Very useful in a large enterprise programme management space, as it is all too easy to miss the odd one. –  Rory Alsop Jul 3 '11 at 6:30
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