Inbox Zero – How I (still) do it after about 10 years…


A bit less than 10 years ago I posted about “Inbox Zero“. Though for as long as I’ve known the concept, I’ve been an avid fan/believer of it. Over the course of the years, I’ve evangelized about the concept to many, where a lot of people typically asked me : “Isn’t that really time-consuming?!?”. My answer has always been ; “It is a habit… And indeed, you invest a bit of time into it, though the gains of not having to pick up the same email(s) over and over again is where you easily win!”.



The basic premise of Inbox Zero is that your inbox is at all times.. EMPTY!

For a lot of people this seems impossible to achieve, though you realize this by going though the following flow for each mails that comes in… at the time it comes in. So yes, you “immediately” (as in the moment you open your mailbox) process all new mails. How do you do that, by the following rule set…

  1. Do I/we need to care?
    1. No, Delete.
    2. Yes. Great! Is the mail something I should do?
      1. No, Delegate (forward).
      2. Yes. Interesting! Can I reply in less than 2-3 minutes?
        1. Yes, Respond (reply).
        2. No, Defer (flag for follow-up). => And schedule times to where you’ll focus on burning through your “backlog” (read: deferred mails), so Do.


Practical Guidance

That sounds quite simple to do? So why don’t we all do it?!? From what I’ve seen, it starts with not knowing / being taught the system. And on the other had, it also requires a given level of discipline / organization to achieve it. Though in my mind, it can be accomplished by all if you are just given a bit of practical guidance. That’s what we’ll be talking about today!


Folder Structure

First of all, let’s take a look at our folder structure… This might sound odd to start with, though you should analyze what kind of mail flows you typically have. Over the years, I’ve had a structure that mostly matched the one I’m using now ;

  • “Admin” : See this as my “assorted/various” folder. By definition, this should only contain “administrative” things… and should be less than a few % (1-2%) of your mailbox. If you exceed that one, then you’re making a rule out of it, instead of an exception.
  • “Contact” & “Customer” : Over the years I’ve noticed that from a high level viewpoint, I have two mail flows… One based on a specific person/group, hence “Contact”-based”. And one more linked to an engagement (Customer or Project specific), hence “Customer” in this case.
    • In a lot of cases, “Customer/Project” will originate from a conversation that originated in “Contact”. Then I move all the related mails to the newly created folder inside of “Customer/Project”
  • “Categorizing” : Inside of both “Contact” & “Customer”, I make an intermediate level…
    • “Contact” : Here I group by “contact group”. This can be a department or whatever grouping fits your purpose.
    • “Customer/Project” : Here I group by “status”. At the moment I’m using “Active/Idle”, as this satisfies my current “life-cycle”. In the past, when it was more “Project”-focused, I has more categories (For example ; Pending / Starting / Ongoing / Closed).


Next to those, I have a search folder “For Follow Up”.

You can easily create on by doing a right-click on “Search Folder” …

and select “Mail flagged for follow-up”.

This will then become your “Deferred”-view (or you might also refer to it as “backlog”).


How to “Defer”

So how do you defer? As mentioned, we do this via the “Follow up”-flag. First of all, let’s configure the “Quick Click” of the follow-up flags. Look towards your toolbar and find “Follow Up”, and down below you’ll see “Set Quick Click” ; 

Set it to “Next Week”.

Now if you click on the flag at the right of an email, you’ll flag it for follow-up, and it’ll be set with a “deadline” of “next week”.

Now it’ll also pop up in the newly created “For Follow-Up”- folder, where you can mark it as “Completed” by clicking on the flag again.

And of course, don’t forget to move the mail to the designated location by doing the “Move”-action.


Automated Rules

If I would take my “DL-MailingLists”-folder, then this is about … way to big. 😀

Here I literally see a small 1000 messages on a daily basis. As I do not want to handle them by myself, I setup rules for those… And the same goes for any origin of structured emails. Just right-click on the mail, and select “Rules”, and then “Always Move Messages From:” …

And select the folder it needs to land in ;


Closing Thoughts

As always, I hope this post was useful to you and it improves your daily routine. For my Inbox Zero has become more than a concept that’s out there, where it’s one of the essential Life Hacks I fully embrace.

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