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3 simple steps to inbox zero

Email: the modern day panacea for office communication, sharing funny memes with friends, and those “did you knows?” from your strange aunt. For as much as we love email and its usefulness, it’s also not uncommon for a click into your inbox to result in something close to hives.

I’m not the only one, right?

A full inbox can spark anxiety and stress. And yet much of what’s there might simply be spam or things you don’t need.

For the majority of us, inbox zero simply remains an unreachable dream—no matter how much time we spend tidying our digital clutter. That’s why I asked a professional for some help. Meet Christine Moline, a digital organizer and owner of Dashboard Priorities in Austin, Texas.

Delete some things, but not everything

Just like with physical organization, we all have a different approach when it comes to digital organization. This includes our email inbox. Some people have amassed thousands of unread emails, others file everything neatly away, and others read everything but leave each message where it is.

A full inbox can spark anxiety and stress. And yet much of what's there might simply be spam or things you don't need.

Whatever your style, the first step in taking control of your inbox is to triage. Set aside some time to understand the state of your inbox and get rid of anything that’s a waste of space.

[Read also: How to write great emails in the age of social service]

Moline isn’t a fan of the slash and burn technique of deleting everything. “We’re stewards of the information that’s sent to us and it deserves our time,” she said. “The onus shouldn’t be placed on the sender to follow-up, especially if they’re offering to hire you for your services. Don’t miss an opportunity to level up your business due to shortcuts.”

As you’re triaging your inbox, start by looking for spam. One of the most common mistakes Moline sees when helping someone manage an untidy inbox is an overload of unmanaged spam. If it doesn’t add value to your life, unsubscribe.

Once you’ve whittled down your inbox to something more manageable, it’s time to put a new system in place

You only need three folders

Most email programs are robust and offer useful tools for managing the constant flow of information we send and receive. But it is possible to get bogged down by your own system and filing methods. Having too many folders can be as large a problem as having too few.

One aspect of email hygiene Moline promotes is setting up a simple, efficient system. She advises setting up just three folders that identify and prompt an action:

  • “Take Action” or “Do It Now”
  • “Pending” or “Waiting For”
  • “Archive” or “To File”

If you’re like me and love your folders, this may sound scary. "You have the option to customize a system as simple as you like. Apply what you believe will be sustainable for your work style and leave the rest,” said Moline.

[Read also: Organize your life to spark joy]

So no need to panic, that really is everything you need. Here she recommends what to put in—or leave out—of each folder.

1. “Take Action” or “Do It Now”
This folder is pretty simple. It contains all the emails that need a response or for you to take action in some way. These are meant to be the important emails. Once you’ve started sorting, you might be surprised just how few emails actually end up in this folder. That’s a good thing. You want to keep this folder small, containing only the highest-priority, actionable emails.

What not to include:

  • Industry newsletters
  • Marketing emails
  • Anything else that doesn’t require an action or response

2. “Pending” or “Waiting For”
When you’ve sent an email or reply and are waiting for a response, move it to the pending folder. This folder functions as a storage space and a built-in reminder. Moline recommends setting a reminder to check this folder once a week. That way, if you haven’t received a response or the material you requested, you can follow up on that item.

Bonus tip: If you’d rather your system be automated to remind you, consider using Boomerang. Now built into Gmail, this free tool can be set to automatically remind you about an email hasn’t received a response within a certain number of days.

3. “Archive” or “To File”
Your archive folder is for everything that’s been handled, requires no further action, and is ready to be filed into a subfolder for reference at a later date. The beauty of the archive folder is that it keeps track of all the emails you no longer need, but might need in the future.

Email was developed for communicating, not for search. Moline also recommends setting aside time to file away useful information somewhere outside of your email program in a format

Email was developed for communicating, not for search.

Like everything else, iterate

Now, for those of you who might be thinking that this system is just too darn easy to work, you’re in luck. Moline has a few tips for refining it to fit your communication style and type of work.

Flags or color tabs
If you’re managing multiple streams of information, a simple way to categorize that is by using flags or color tabs. Flags and color tabs can be used to function in conjunction with your file system. For example, flags may be used to label an action, a pending item, or one to be filed.

If you have two clients or projects that you’re managing and have tasks for both in your pending folder, you may want to mark them with different colors to give yourself a visual reminder of which emails need responses.

Color tabs can also help signify whether you’ve followed up on a pending email. If you’ve followed up once, assign it one color. If you’ve followed up multiple times, it gets another color.

[Read also: Happiness at work depends on your perspective]

Subfolders
If you send a lot of emails or track a lot of information in your inbox, you may need (or want) some subfolders. Reminder: We’re creating a simple system, so try to keep these to a minimum.

If possible, subfolders should be categorized under your archive, so as to not clutter your pending or take action folders. These subfolders are simply a way to better organize the information you’ve already handled and are finished with.

In the end, this is your system, customized to fit your needs.

Next up: More tips and tricks for good inbox hygiene