Empty Inbox

Productivity gurus agree: if you want to stay on top of your email, you need to get into the daily habit of processing your inbox to empty every time you check your mail. We will be using a simplified set of rules based on the famous management book Getting Things Done by David Allen to make emptying your inbox a fast and easy process. You should be able to do this in 10-15 minutes, and should do it only two to three times per day!

Getting Things Done LITE

Crucial to Getting Things Done are the three golden rules:

  1. Empty your inbox one email at a time – and no putting back!
  2. If it can be done in 2 minutes, do it immediately!
  3. Check all your action folders weekly!

One at a time

It’s a common habit to scan your email by subject or sender and deal with the one that piques your curiosity first, either because it might be a very important email, addresses an urgent issue or is simply one you would like to read. Unfortunately this is not the most efficient process, as it will get you in the habit of scanning all emails multiple times and will lure you into multitasking. The better alternative is to literally treat your inbox as a conveyor belt and deal with each email one by one. The power behind the one-by-one rule is that it stops you from re-reading and reprioritizing emails multiple times and it gets the brain into a flow of decision making.

I recommend starting at the top (most recent email) and working your way down. This will ensure you are addressing the most recent email of a thread or discussion, often making reading other emails in that thread unnecessary. The second component of the first golden rule is that there is no putting back sorted email back into your inbox. Once you have decided what to do with an email, it will be banished to one of the action folders, never to return to the inbox. This ensures that your inbox will contain only new emails that you have not yet processed. An empty inbox helps prevent distraction so you can focus on what needs to get done. Try to do this only twice a day: once in the morning and once after lunch. This may not always work, but it is a good target and will increase your productivity by preventing you from checking your email twice every minute!

Quick decisions

Now that we have turned our inbox into an email conveyor belt, we need to set a process that allows us to decide when to address which email. And this process needs to be quick, because we receive more and more emails every year. Although systems and tools have been developed to assist you in this, we have experienced that the more bells and whistles you introduce into your system the less likely it is you will maintain it over the long run. The trick here is to keep it simple.

Our simplified take on the methods laid out in Getting Things Done can be applied to your email. Using the decision diagram below on each email in your inbox will give you all the tools needed to prioritize your email and get on with the important ones, using one simple trick you already know: moving an email from one folder to another.

So how does this work? Each question in the diagram has few options and a set answer every time. This ensures that you can get into the ‘habit’ of making quick decisions and organising your email accordingly. It will not be long before you are making these sorting decisions on autopilot, allowing you to concentrate purely on prioritization.

The first question you have to ask yourself when you start reading an email is, “Do I have to take action on this email/Is there something I have to do?” If the answer is NO, then you have 3 options: delete, file or park in Waiting for Others. Delete anything you know is rubbish or no longer required, and note that the keyboard has a dedicated shortcut key to delete mails (DEL). When in doubt, it’s usually best to just file it and get on with the next email. Filing email can also be done more quickly using keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl+Shift+V in Outlook or the “i” key on a Blackberry). These bring up the Move Item dialog box, where you can type the first letter of the folder you wish to move the email to, hit Enter and move on to the next email.

If you cannot act on an email right away – for instance, if you are waiting for an answer from a colleague or an order to arrive – you will naturally need to keep track of it, but it’s still best to keep it out of sight. These emails should be moved to the Waiting for Others folder, which you should then check once a week to make sure nothing has slipped through their fingers.

Two-minute rule

If the answer to the question “Do I have to act on this?” is YES, move on to the second golden rule, the two-minute rule. If what needs to be done can be done in approximately two minutes, do it immediately. This will drastically reduce the amount of emails in your to-do list, but still keep you in the flow of decision making. Many things can be addressed in two minutes; a brief answer, logging into a system to retrieve information, reading a newsletter or delegating actions should all take less than two minutes.


If an item cannot be dealt within two minutes, process it depending on when you want to come back to that task. If it needs to happen at a specific time in the future, the item should be committed to your calendar so you will be reminded to take care of it at the appropriate time. If you use a paper-based calendar, just jot down a note and move the email to your filing folder. If you use the Outlook calendar, you can quickly copy the information in the email to an appointment by dragging the email onto the Calendar button, add details and finish by filing the email.

To do or to hold

The remaining emails should be emails that require your attention but take longer than two minutes to address. However, if you file all of these together your to-do list will grow very long and include a lot of items that don’t require your attention right now (or can’t be dealt with yet), leading to disorganisation and distraction. This is why we need the last action folder, Holding for Later.

David Allen studied a lot of effective people and found that splitting your tasks in two simple high- and low-priority lists is the quickest and most efficient way to stay on top of work. The high-prio to-do list, for tasks you would like to do today or sometime this week, is called Do This Week. Holding for Later is your lower-prio folder.

When deciding where to place an email think a week ahead (ignoring the weekend), ask yourself if this needs to be taken care of within a week or not. It really helps to be strict with yourself and try to park anything that is not a priority for this week – or any tasks you are not absolutely sure will fall on your plate yet – in Holding for Later. Quite simply, sort based on your gut feeling of how the task aligns with your current objectives. This should not be rocket science; this should be a quick decision based on whether you should (or want to) complete a task now or later. Again, use the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+V to move an item to the appropriate folder, and during your weekly check, review the items in Holding For Later to see if they require attention or can be deleted.

Email yourself

As you have now created two simple lists with action items and one folder with parked items waiting for external input, you can also manage in-person and phone tasks through email. Simply email yourself a short description of the task in the subject line. The next time you empty your inbox, treat this reminder like any other email, sorting it into To Do This Week or Holding for Later.

Weekly check

The third and last golden rule of email management is to do your weekly check. The weekly check is a safeguard against letting items slip through your own fingers or through other people’s hands. It is also a moment to reprioritise actions in your Holding for Later folder. Most people like to do the weekly check at the end of the week, but make sure you leave enough time to address any necessary action items. Scheduling an hour of time into your Friday morning calendar is usually best, but whenever you choose to do it, it helps if it is at a time and place where you are not frequently disturbed.

In your weekly check, go through all your action folders:

  • Calendar, past week: Go through all your appointments to remind yourself of any actions still needing to be taken care of. If you can perform these actions in two minutes, then do them straight away. If not, send yourself an email with the task so as not to forget it.
  • Calendar, coming week: Go through all your upcoming appointments and see if any of them require extra attention prior to the meeting. If so, schedule yourself time for that attention or, if you are waiting on someone else, remind them about what you are waiting for.
  • Do This Week: Check your Do This Week for any pending items that really need to be resolved. Decide to either reprioritise, delegate or no longer postpone. In the first two cases, the item is removed from the to-do list (either into your archive, if you are not going to act on it, into Holding for Later if you are postponing the task. If it needs to be taken care of that day, mark the email as a high priority (you could use the red flag) and make sure to finish it.
  • Paper Notes: Check any paper notebooks or yellow notes or lists for hidden action items. Address those that can be completed within two minutes, or send an email reminder to yourself to sort into the appropriate action folder.
  • Holding for Later: Check Holding For Later to see if you need to get started on any of the items within the next week. If so, move them to Do This Week. Often you will find items that no longer require action and can be removed.
  • Waiting for Others: Conclude by checking all items in Waiting for Others. Hopefully most have been completed and can be filed, but if an item has not been resolved and you’re still waiting for someone or something else leave the email in the Waiting For Others folder and send the person you’re waiting on a reminder – keeping in mind that using means other than email is more successful!

Combining these weekly check techniques should enable you to empty your inbox on a daily basis. However, sometimes a more drastic approach is needed. For instance, when returning from a holiday or leave and you might be overwhelmed by an overloaded inbox. This is addressed under The Back from Holiday Crunch in the chapter How To Get Started


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