Friday, February 25, 2011

The Empty Email Inbox

In an article for, Gina Trapani describes the Trusted Trio of folders she uses to keep her email inbox empty. Jim McCullen has developed a methodology for using email to manage action lists he calls Control Your Day. My system owes thanks to both and works well in an Outlook environment.

Trapani directs her email into one of three folders: Followup, Hold, or Archive. Followup requires some action that cannot be done quickly and immediately. Hold is for items that have no specific action but may need attention in the next day or two. Everything else goes into Archive.

McCullen uses Outlook rules, categories and search folders to make his system as automated as possible. Messages are dropped into an archive immediately and flagged as an @Inbox category. He sees and acts on them through a corresponding @Inbox (virtual) search folder. Other rules add other categories to messages as they arrive.

I use McCullen's rules to move incoming messages into a real archive folder, tag them with the @Inbox category and see them through the search folder the way he does. I have also created category / search folder pairs for Followup and Hold the way Trapani uses them.

The Process

As email arrives, it is automatically moved to the archive and tagged for the @Inbox virtual inbox. The message may be deleted but it will never be moved from the archive folder. If I need to find it, there is exactly one place to look.

Now the message is in the virtual search folder @Inbox, which will fill quickly unless I take action. Since I have the infrastructure ready, actions are simple to process.

Delete: For the (many) messages that have no value now or ever, the Delete key deletes the message from the archive and takes it off the @Inbox list. It is in the deleted items folder where it will stay until it gets purged, available for recovery but out of my world.

Reference: If I want to keep the message but have no specific plans, a single click on the category box toggles the @Inbox category. It stays in the archive where it can be found later.

Defer: If I want to bring the message back to my attention on a specific date, I can defer it. Outlook allows me to tag the message to show up on a specific date, or I can forward a copy to

Followup / Hold: With the press of a function key, I can tag the message into either Followup or Hold for any later action I want to take. The @Inbox search folder is empty, and further action takes place in Followup.

The most common Followup action is a reply to the originator or a forward to someone else. If I need to take some different action, I can forward the message into my action list. I use Toodledo but there are many choices. I can alsoforward to Evernote, which acts as an electronic notebook. Messages go there when I might need them away from my desk.

Setup for Outlook

1. Create a folder which will serve as your mail archive.
  • Right click Inbox and select New Folder...
  • Give the folder a name. McCullen recommends creating a new folder for each year -- for example 2011 Processed Mail. Trapani calls it Archive.
2. Set up categories you need. This includes @Inbox, Followup, and Hold. It should also include categories for messages if they can be identified by rules.
  • Select Edit -> Categorize -> All Categories...
  • Select New ...
  • Give the category a name. Assign Function keys to Followup, Hold, and any other category you will use frequently.
  • Select Edit -> Categorize -> Set Quick Click...
  • Set Quick Clicj to toggle the @Inbox Category.
3. From Search Folders, right click to create a new search folder for each category.
  • Right click on Search Folder and select New Search Folder...
  • Under Organizing Mail Select Categorized Mail
  • Select Choose... and pick the category corresponding to your category.
  • Click OK then OK to save the new folder.
4. Create a rule to move mail from your Inbox to your archive folder and flag it to the @Inbox category. Have it process any mail currently in your inbox.
  • Select Tools -> Rules and Alerts...
  • Select New Rule...
  • Your rule should look like this:
Apply this rule when message arrives
On this machine only
Assign it to the @Inbox Category
and move it to the 2011 Processed Messages folder
  • Save your work and apply the rule to all messages currently in your inbox.
5. If you have mail in other folders, for example project folders, identify and apply any additional category tags. Then add them to the @Inbox category and drag them into your archive folder.

6. Take each email in @Inbox through the process, identifying necessary Followup, Hold and action items.

7. Go celebrate. Your inbox is empty, your messages are all in one searchable archive, and you can identify appropriate Followup actions. Life is good, or at least a little better.