While it’s often the simplest, quickest and most efficient way to send a message, email can be a major source of stress if it gets out of control.

In an increasingly digital world where electronic records and communications can cut costs and carbon footprints, the daily onslaught of messages comes from a wide range of sources—suppliers, clients, patients, coworkers, e-newsletters, companywide announcements, ads, mailing lists, order and delivery confirmations, e-receipts, and more. Inboxes quickly overflow and important communications may be missed.

“It often seems easier to leave things in ‘in’ when you know you have to do something about them but can’t do it right then,” says management consultant David Allen in his popular productivity book, Getting Things Done.

“The in-basket, especially for paper and email, is the best that many people can do in terms of organization—at least they know that somewhere in there is a reminder of something they have to do,” Allen says. “Unfortunately, that safety net is lost when the piles get out of control or the inventory of emails gets too extensive to be viewed on one screen.”

The solution? A simple workflow process. If you’re enjoying a slim inbox right now, congratulations—you’re ahead of the game. But if you’re like most and the vast majority of your emails are sitting in your inbox, it’s time to give yourself a clean slate.

Start Fresh

You don’t have to go through every single email in your inbox in order to achieve the elusive “inbox zero.” Instead, move all emails from the past month into a “Sort” folder and put the rest into a long-term “Archive” folder. Don’t worry—you can easily use the search bar, or set up a saved search folder for your most frequent and important reference materials, to find important emails should you need them.

Now go back to the “Sort” folder and complete, organize or delete emails in small bursts of time throughout the week. Next, set up an organized system for handling the influx of emails that are sure to come pinging your way, and then work that system as you go.

If the message is actionable, you must decide whether it’s a “do now” or “do later” message. If there is no action to take, archive the email or delete it.

Get Systemized

Allen breaks productivity down to the basics, outlining a processing system that starts with identifying what the message is (information, assignment or request) and then deciding what to do about it. If the message is actionable, you must decide whether it’s a “do now” or “do later” message. If there is no action to take, archive the email or delete it.

There are several ways to organize your email program, so it may take some trial, error and tweaking to find the version that works best for you. The most basic and effective way to manage your inbox is with a three-folder system.

> To Do: If an actionable email will take two minutes or less, do it right away, then archive or delete the message. Put any other email that requires a response or action in this folder. Check the folder regularly and prioritize what needs to be done. Once you have responded or completed the task, move the email to its appropriate archive location or delete it.

> Follow-up: Move any email you need to keep track of in the next few days or weeks to this folder. Think shipment tracking numbers, cost estimates, important email threads you’re following, reference materials on products under consideration or emails from coworkers who need to get back with you. Check this folder at least once a week, and move items to the archive or delete them as soon as they’re no longer needed.

> Archive: This is long-term parking for all emails you may want to reference in the future but do not require any action or follow-up. If you keep a well-organized filing system and file as you go, emails can go straight to their designated folders. Otherwise, move emails to the archive and file messages when you find short stretches of time between meetings, at the end of the day, just before or after lunch breaks, etc.

Thin the Herd

Now that you’ve got a handle on incoming mail, the next step is to reduce the amount of unnecessary messages you receive. Learn to love the “delete” and “unsubscribe” buttons.

If you’re constantly ignoring or deleting emails from specific sources—bulletins, advertisements, blog updates, social media updates—scroll to the bottom of the next one you receive and click on the “unsubscribe” button.

If you’re not ready to cut messages off entirely, set up a rule or filter that will deliver messages from RSS feeds or related to specific topics and keywords to a specific folder and have them automatically marked as read. Visit the folder as you have time.

Alternatively, many email services allow you to choose how often you receive emails or to combine multiple types of messages into a weekly digest. Click the “unsubscribe” or “manage email preferences” link to update your frequency settings.

Similarly, if you’re on a mass email exchange that isn’t relevant to you, many email programs allow you to right click on the message and select “ignore,” which will deliver all future messages in the chain directly to the trash.

Finally, make use of calendar and task list integration. When emails come in regarding meetings, add them directly to your calendar or task list and remove them from your inbox.

And poof! You’re at beautiful inbox zero—and you have a system for getting it there more often.

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