Five Simple Hacks to Get Your Email Inbox to Empty


You’ve probably read a few articles on how to get your email inbox to empty (if not, read David Allen, Merlin Mann, or even a couple articles by me). Clearing your inbox and keeping it clear is just a tremendous boost to your psyche and sanity, if not your productivity.

Getting it clear is one thing (be prepared to spend a day or two doing this if you have thousands of emails), but keeping it clear if you have dozens of emails coming in every hour can be a real challenge.

First, you should try following these simple rules:

  1. Process to empty. When you process your email, don’t just read it, but actually process it. And get your inbox to empty every time, don’t leave it full of messages.
  2. Take action on every message. Reply to, forward, delete, or file every message, or make a note on your to-do list and file it. Don’t just read the message.

Those are really all the rules you need. But sticking to them and keeping up with the every-growing flow of emails is not always as easy as it sounds. If that’s the case for you, try these tricks:
1. I Want Sandy. Ever since Mike Gunderloy reviewed the I Want Sandy digital personal assistant service more than a week ago, I’ve been giving Sandy a test drive. And you know what? It’s not bad at all. It helps remove those “action” emails from my inbox (or action folder) because now I can email Sandy real quick to get a reminder when I need it, and then archive the original email, as I no longer need it as a reminder. When the reminder comes from Sandy, I can always find the original email with a quick search.

If you don’t use the I Want Sandy service, all that really matters is that you have some kind of to-do/reminder system outside of your email that you can call up with a keystroke or two in order to note any actions you need to take later. If it takes too much time or effort to make that note, you probably won’t do it, and the email will have to sit in your inbox (or in another folder, which isn’t any better).

2. Auto text. You might have a lot of similar email that requires pretty much the same few responses each time. In that case, put your common responses into AutoHotKey (or other similar text replacement program) so that you can type in a few keystrokes and have the text automatically typed into your email. This will save tons of time, shortening your email processing time and allowing you to process to empty.

3. Five sentences. I’ve been using a version of this for awhile, but Mike Davidson hit the nail on the head when he created the Five Sentences system: Limit all emails to five sentences or less, and you’ll spend much less time responding to email. Yes, it will force you to say less, and to choose your words more carefully. Yes, that’s a good thing. It will drastically cut your email processing time down.

4. Send the ball back in their court. If you aren’t sure what to do with an email, it may be because you don’t have enough information. Instead of letting the email sit in your inbox (or another folder), reply quickly to the person, asking for more info. Another thing I’ll do is tell them I can’t do something now, and ask them to check with me in a week (or a month, or whatever). In any case, the trick is to get the ball out of your court, and into theirs, and the email out of your inbox and out of your mind.

5. Forget folders or labels. If you follow the first tip, and get all actions out of your inbox, you don’t need an action folder or label, or other folders labeled @home, @office, etc. to keep emails as reminders of actions. So take those out of your system, because they’re basically more inboxes where you’re storing stuff. Just use one inbox, and clear everything out of it.

Another reasonable use of folders is for emails that require longer replies that you can’t get to right now. An @reply folder, for example. Well, if you follow the Five Sentences rule, you don’t need that folder either.

And if you’re using Gmail, you don’t need folders to find stuff, as search works even better (and doesn’t require filing).


Tim Haughton

For simplicity’s sake, in GMail and Google Reader, I use the ‘star’ function as a generic do-something-with-this label. In Google reader it invariably means ‘comment-on-this’ or ‘blog-about-this’. In GMail it usually means action-required.


Agreed. I do the process until empty as much as possible. Some items do need to remain for a few days, but if I have more than 3-4 e-mails in my inbox that’s not good.

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