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By Narendra Rocherolle CTRL (or Apple) A and then delete! Just kidding. Are you drowning in email? Is your inbox a source of constant low level stress? Over the last year, David Allen’s GTD has completely changed my work habits and I am now a happier, […]

By Narendra Rocherolle

CTRL (or Apple) A and then delete!

Just kidding.

inbox_empty.pngAre you drowning in email? Is your inbox a source of constant low level stress? Over the last year, David Allen’s GTD has completely changed my work habits and I am now a happier, more efficient, less anxious web worker.

My complete system involves a physical inbox and simple file structure, 30 Boxes for my calendar and contextually tagged to do lists, and trusty Apple Mail. Of course, any combination of web or desktop apps will suffice.

I just want to focus on email portion because it is super simple and it works. Here’s a 8-step blueprint for an empty inbox.


1) Abandon crazy filing systems in favor of five folders: -Archive-, -Some Day-, @Computer, @Reply, and Waiting (I use the hyphens to get an alphabetical heirarchy that I like).

2) Parse your Inbox one email at a time.

3) Delete useless email.

4) Any email that describes a fixed event should be added to your calendar. Delete the email unless there is info in it that might be some day recalled. In that case, dump it in Archive.

5) If you can turn the email into an action that you can complete in 2 minutes or less, do it! You can then delete the email (if no longer needed) or drop it in Archive for future reference. Often times you will be replying to an email and then waiting for a response to continue a task or project. In this case, drop the original email (or a BCC’d copy of the reply) in the Waiting folder.

6) An email that requires simply a reply but will take more than 2 minutes (you may not know what you want to say to a friend or business partner at that moment) should be put in the @Reply folder.

7) Email that relates to or describes a task or project requires that you convert it into a next action. If that next action is going to take more than 2 minutes you need to make a quick decision. Is the contents of the email sufficiently clear that as soon as you glance at the email again, you’ll know what to do?

If so, and the result of the email will be some sort of email reply, then you can move the email to @Computer which designates that you have a next action that can be completed while you are at your computer.

Example: your boss emails you to request some research on a competitor. Tip: often times long emails can be painful/inefficient to rescan days later. I use a program called MailTags to annotate a simple one-line next action to the email.

If email is non-essential to the next action, your best bet is to translate it into your to do system and then archive or delete the email. For instance, if I got an email from a business partner suggesting we start looking for new office space, I would look up my real estate agent’s phone number and add “call Bill about real estate options 650-555-8000″ to my 30 Boxes to do list with the tags @Calls and work. That way, the next time I was focusing on work items and had some time to make calls I could easily filter to a list that would let me focus exclusively on what I could do given the context!

8) If after glancing at the email, you decide it isn’t really appropriate at this time but you want to revisit it later, file it in Some Day. When you conduct a monthly review, be sure to step through the email in the Some Day folder in a fashion similar to parsing your inbox.

That’s it. This method is 100% guaranteed. If you like to separate your personal and work items you can double up on folders with: , -Some Day Personal-, Reply Personal, @Computer Personal, Waiting Personal.

When you start your day, it is really easy to pick a mode and rattle through email instead of clarifying and putting it in context over and over which is what happens if you have a string of hundreds of unprocessed emails in your inbox.

How do you get your inbox to empty? Experiences and suggestions are welcome.

Narendra Rocherolle is the co-founder of 30Boxes and Webshots.

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  1. I probably receive about 50 – 100 emails a day and do at least double that on replies or new messages. But I keep my inbox down to usually no more than 10 emails. The best method I use is if someone sends me an email and I respond to it in such a way that is requiring them to write me back with more information, then as soon as I send it…I delete the first email. I know they’re going to reply and the original email thread (with my response) will come back to me again. I keep doing that until the task is handled. Then I’ll either delete it completely if there’s not point to archiving it, or move it to a folder that’s named for the project/task.

    The way I look at it is if I respond to that person asking for more information in order to complete the task, and they don’t respond, then it’s not my problem. These people are all adults, working professionals, and I’m certainly not going to be the email babysitter. If they can’t respond in a timely fashion, or can’t respond at all, then I make sure they’re aware that the work is not going to get done in the timeframe that was originally established. I know it’s a little Draconian but I’ve got plenty of development work to do besides theirs.

  2. Logical Extremes Sunday, April 8, 2007

    I have over a dozen email addresses (used for different purposes/audiences)converging into my mail app. I use my already read inbox as my email to-do list, and try to keep it under 20 items. Mailing lists and certain other filtered emails bypass the inbox and go right to folders. Any new unread email in my inbox is quickly junked, archived, replied-to/acted-on, or left alone (for the moment) if it needs more extensive action. I used to use folders more extensively for archiving, but I rely more now on chronology and search for the sake of simplicity.

  3. Good post. I have a slightly different method of clearing your inbox that I wrote about in my article on Email Zen: Clearing Your Inbox and more recently in Inbox Master: Get all your inboxes to zero and have fewer inboxes.

  4. I’m almost done using my own domain name email addresses, they are just too hammered anymore with spam. What I have found with them though is Thunderbird is GREAT at spam control

    My main email now is a gmail account, and while I’m still not a fan of having email with something I don’t control, it just works.

    In Outlook Express, Outlook, Thunderbird and Gmail you can setup custom message rules (they are called different things for different apps), if you start to use these it will greatly reduce the stress of a clogged up email.

    My other thing is reply to email immediatly. Don’t check email every 5 minutes, you’ll never get anything done, but when email comes in, respond right away if its fit or file it in a folder for storage.

  5. David Smith Sunday, April 8, 2007

    Here are two additional suggestions to add to your checklist.

    Sally McGhee : Add another question to your review checklist: which meaningful objective does this email meet? If you can’t identify an objective, either create a new objective or delete the email. This provides another level of focus on what’s important rather than what’s presented as urgent.

    Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow : Establish a limit that the default standard for your @reply folder is the next business day. You can still answer things today, but most emails can wait until tomorrow. Once you have completed a day’s work in the @reply folder, you are now freed up to work on your @action items.

    Most people’s systems fail, Forster suggests, because they do not have a realistic view of how much work they can actually accomplish in a day. His system helps pull that into focus.

  6. O’DonnellWeb – This is not a homeschooling blog » Blog Archive » links for 2007-04-08 Sunday, April 8, 2007

    [...] Web Worker Daily » Blog Archive Clearing Your Inbox with Minimal Pain « (tags: email lifehacks gtd) [...]

  7. Ramzes Berezecki Sunday, April 8, 2007

    Thanks for the tips. My own email habits are not very organized so I’ll see if I can utilize this info to streamline it a bit.

  8. I have 6 email accounts I receive 200-250 emails a day – and growing. Every day I am researching things and every website then puts me on their email list. Often I sign up for a newsletter or daily tip – just to see the quality of what’s sent.

    The trouble is, people think we READ these things – and I just don’t have time. I have email overload, so never get round to reading any.

    I tried using rules to filter emails into the correct folder immediately, but then I found I had some incoming accounts that would not filter – they were the wrong sort of email for rules to work on.

    One person/website is now sending me TWO emails a day about stuff…. I’d like to delete myself from that list, but then I worry about why I signed up for it… maybe I wanted to be on that one – only I am so snowed under I couldn’t begin to go through everything sent to me and work it out. Having said that, typing this made me go and look at what rubbish he is sending me. And I unsubscribed… so that’s 2 down per day!

    As for the person who says they delete their inbound email when they respond requesting further information because that person will reply to them giving them the original question again – I don’t find that is true. A lot just reply and you would have lost the original question.

    Oh – and guess what. I just got an email asking me to confirm my request to be removed from the list I just cancelled!

    I think I need to unsubscribe from everything really …. start a new email address. Start again.

  9. I’ve a similar system – but only 3 folders – TODAY, IMPORTANT and KIV.

    Today are the tasks that can be completed instantly – similar to the 2 minutes one, but easier to just classify everything that you can do within the day. All very very important mails that require instant action also goes in there.

    Tasks that takes a little bit more time goes into IMPORTANT, and finally – things that I should work on “some day” goes into KIV.

  10. Clearning Your Inbox with Minimal Pain at Le Duc McNamara Family Monday, April 9, 2007

    [...] Great post about GTD and getting to zero with the tasks in one’s inbox.  Read more . . . [...]

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