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Is it actually possible to have an empty inbox? Try this and find out!

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I’ve developed a system over the years that has kept my inbox mostly empty all of the time. It has worked for me even when I was getting 100+ emails/day, so I’d say it scales fairly well. It also works well even in the absence of Gmail’s additional feature set (I use Office 365 personally, but this worked when I used Gmail, Apple Mail and my own mail servers back in the day.), which is nice should you ever choose to use a desktop mail client.

This might not work for you. You might even be doing some variation of this already. If that’s the case, feel free to tell me off!

Finally, if you don’t want to worry about any of this stuff and don’t ever see yourself having to use Outlook or ever again, try Google’s Inbox and tell me that all of this is useless in the comments!

Without further ado, this is how I email:

  • I use folders to categorize my mail. I used to abuse folder structures by having folders for particular events, purchases, conversations, etc, but I’ve found that it hasn’t provided me with a lot of value and was really difficult to re-assemble after email migrations, so I now keep a minimal top-level directory structure instead. The folders that I use most often are:

  • Services/{Added, Removed}: For keeping track of new and deleted accounts I make (and I make a lot)

  • Career/{Accomplishments, Failures}: For keeping track of things I’ve done right and wrong

  • Events: Self-explanatory

  • Responded: Emails I’ve responded to

  • Responded/Sent To Me Directly: Emails sent just to me, see below

  • Purchases: Self-explanatory

  • Receipts: For receipt tracking

  • Team: Important emails from or about my team

  • Personal Messages: Important, yet personal, messages

  • Tasks: I’ll explain this below

  • Timing: I’ll explain this below

This is more useful in the presence of Gmail labels where you can mark something as being in a particular folder without having to physically move it. It still works well for me without that feature, however.

  • My inbox is my to-do list. This is why I said I keep my inbox “mostly” empty. If a message is in my inbox, it’s either something I need to follow-up on or it isn’t there at all.

  • Follow-ups are flagged (starred). Any email that requires an action from me is starred. Gmail has this neat feature where you can change the color of the star when you star an item. Outlook has this as well with its different types of flags as well as its color-coded categorization system (which is really neat but is a mondo pain in the butt to reconfigure after migrations) This feature of my system is really important to me, as it helps me keep track of what my schedule is even in the absence of calendar entries (which I sometimes forget to create). That said, it’s been a personal goal of mine to schedule things in emails as soon as I get them so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting later.

  • I ranked my emails using the “Eisenhower” Decision Matrix. I say “ranked” because this works much better with Gmail labels than a traditional IMAP client. I learned this system in some class about time management back in college (I think) and use it (along with scoring things from 1 to 10) for measuring the priority of things. This has also helped me with managing my email. Here’s how I do it:

  • Rank 0 (Important and Urgent): Needs to be attended to right away and is extremely time-sensitive. You shouldn’t have too many of these in your inbox! If you do, reconsider their importance and urgency.

  • Rank 1 (Important, but not Urgent): Needs to be attended to “soon” but is not time-sensitive. This gives a bit of a nudge to flagged inbox items.

  • Rank 2 (Urgent, but not Important): Doesn’t need to be attended to right away but is time-sensitive. These could be meetings or messages sent directly to you

  • Rank 3 (Not Important or Urgent): These messages can (should) be deleted or filed away, see below

  • I mark messages sent to me directly using Gmail labels or automatic color assignment with rules. It is usually the case that messages sent just to me (i.e. messages where my email address is in the To: field, not messages sent to a group) are urgent and need to be responded to quickly. I usually use a bright color that stands out so that I can quickly identify these messages and do something about them.

  • I action every single email right away. Action doesn’t necessary mean ‘immediate response’ (though if I can respond immediately, I will; “immediately” usually means 160 characters or less). This means that I either flag it for follow-up later, rank it for visibility, move/label it for archival or delete it. This is really important to me. The bigger my inbox gets with crap emails, the harder it gets to clean up, so I’m extremely strict about this.

  • I “delete” most things. I think that this is the hardest thing that keeps people from having clean inboxes (that and not caring enough, since most people don’t really care about this like I do lol). Everyone’s afraid of deleting something and needing it in the future, but out of the 10s or 100s of thousands of emails I’ve deleted over the years, I can count the number of emails I’ve needed to recover with two hands, and even fewer than that were critical messages.

However, Gmail provides way more space for inboxes than people will ever need in their lifetimes, so the smart way of dealing with this is to archive into the “All Mail” bin instead of delete. This way, they’re out of view but still there if they ever need to be recovered. This is the default action in just about every client out there, so you don’t even need to reconfigure anything!

That’s how I email! Here are some great plugins and add-ons that might help take this further:

  • Boomerang for Gmail. Delay sending emails until a certain time. Works really well for actioning on emails right away without having to wait. Get it here
  • Checker Plus for Chrome. Get rich notifications for every email. You can do just about everything I’ve typed above with this extension. It works great! Get it here
  • Multiple Inbox for Gmail. This is a Labs extension in Gmail that allows you to see more than one folder along with your Inbox. It’s really useful, especially if you rank emails. To enable it, go into Settings, then Labs, then check “Multiple Inbox” and Save. After Gmail reloads, you can configure the filters that you want to see in Settings > Multiple Labels. Get it here

I hope this helps! Let me know what you think in the comments below!

About Me

I’m the founder of, an IT engineering firm in Brooklyn that builds smarter and cost-effective IT solutions that help new and growing companies grow fast. Sign up for your free consultation to find out how.