7 Steps to Inbox Zero and Better Email Management

inbox zeroAnyone struggle with email overload, email management and the quest for “inbox zero”?

Anyone willing to admit they’ve got a few hundred unread emails sitting in their inbox?

Even worse, anyone have a few thousand READ email messages that simply eat up up your mailbox storage?

Email overload is an affliction that affects millions of Outlook email and Gmail systems across businesses of all sizes. The corporate communication standard has devolved from face to face communication  to email.

Meeting minutes. FYIs. Carbon copies. Blind carbon copies. CYA emails. Response to your CYA. A seemingly endless set of responses to your CYA email that was CC to the department and the BCC to the next management level.  All delivered via email.

There is simply too much email.

Despite all the iPads, smartphones, tablets, laptops and work-from-home access to corporate email, there has to be a better way to tackle email overload and reach the coveted “inbox zero”.

My Inbox Zero Email Management Method

After several attempts at better email management, I found an approach that works for me on a weekly basis.  I’ve switched to a simpler folder system which includes:

  1. Create the following folders in your email system
    1. CC
    2. Follow Up
    3. Projects
    4. Archive
  2. Automatically move any emails where you are carbon copied on to the CC folder
  3. Any emails marked for Follow Up appear in the Follow Up folder
  4. Any important project related emails go into a Project folder
  5. Move attachments to Archive folder
  6. Optionally archive or delete everything else in your inbox
  7. Clear the Follow Up folder each day
  8. Delete the Archive, Notifications and CC inbox contents each month

For important emails or specific project related issues, emails can be stored in a Project sub-folder or saved as a PDF and stored with the project archives.  Any email where I am CC on is immediately deemed a lower priority than the emails where I am on the To: subscriber line.  You still need to read those emails but it is secondary to managing the primary emails in your inbox.

The decision to delete emails from the inbox may seem risky to an email hoarder like me, but you can always go to your Sent mail folder to find the correspondence or reach out to the original sender.  Having an inbox of 600 unread emails isn’t a bragging right as that’s 600 more emails that you eventually need to read.

Use Automated Rules

I’ll venture to guess most of corporate America use Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes or a fully functional email tool to manage their calendar, email and contact lists.  The majority of these desktop tools all support automatic rules that will move email to different folders.  I use automated rules to keep the inbox organized and I run the following rules every few days to clear out the inbox.

Rule #1 Move all Meeting Decline, Meeting Accept, Tentative meeting responses and Automatic Responses to a Notifications folder

Rule #2 Move all emails where my email address is in the CC line to a CC folder

Rule #3 Move all emails before a given date into the Archive folder

This rule is also configured to skip any emails marked for Follow Up.  You want to keep those in the inbox.

You can configure these rules easily in Outlook and with some tinkering you can do the same in Lotus Notes, Apple’s Mail app and web-based Gmail.

How to Setup Microsoft Outlook Email Rules

With just a few quick clicks, you’ll be on your way to email Inbox mastery with these Microsoft Outlook rules.

outlook email management

Step 1.  Create Your  Folders

  1. Click on the Inbox folder
  2. In the Outlook Ribbon bar, click on the Folder tab – New Folder icon
  3. Enter the name of your folder (CC) and click Ok.
  4. Repeat for the Notifications and Archive folder

inbox zero email foldersPlease note for the Archive folder, I recommend creating a separate PST file and storing it on your local drive so all your archived mail doesn’t eat up the server disk space.

Step 2: Setup the CC Rule

Follow these steps to setup the CC rule

  1. In the Outlook Ribbon bar, click on the Home tab – Rules icon – Manage Rules and Alerts
  2. Click on the New rule button
  3. Click on “Apply Rule on Messages I receive”
  4. Click Next
  5. Click on “where my name is in the Cc box”
  6. Click Next
  7. Click on “move it to the specified folder”
  8. Enter the name of your folder (CC)
  9. Click Ok.
  10. Click Next
  11. Click Next again
  12. Enter the name of the rule
  13. Click Finish

outlook email rules

more outlook email rules

Step 3: Setup the Notifications Rule

The notifications rule is similar to the CC rule and is easily created by following the prompts.

inbox zero outlook rules

  1. In the Outlook Ribbon bar, click on the Home tab – Rules icon – Manage Rules and Alerts
  2. Click on the New rule button
  3. Click on “Apply Rule on Messages I receive”
  4. Click Next
  5. Click on the “uses form name form”
  6. Click on the form name link
  7. Select Application Forms
  8. Add the Accept Meeting Response, Automatic Replies template, Decline Meeting Response, Meeting Cancellation, Recall Message From, Tentative Meeting Response forms
  9. Click Close
  10. Click Next
  11. Click on the “move it to the specified folder”
  12. Select the Notifications folder
  13. Click Next
  14. Click Next again
  15. Enter the name of the rule
  16. Click Finish

Step 4: Setup the Archive Rule

The notifications rule is similar to the CC rule and is easily created by following the prompts.

outlook email management date field

  1. In the Outlook Ribbon bar, click on the Home tab – Rules icon – Manage Rules and Alerts
  2. Click on the New rule button
  3. Click on “Apply Rule on Messages I receive”
  4. Click Next
  5. Click on the “received in a specific date span”
  6. Click on the “in a specific date span” link
  7. Click on the Before check box
  8. Enter a date
  9. Click Ok
  10. Click Next
  11. Click on the “move it to the specified folder”
  12. Select the Archive folder
  13. Click Next
  14. Click Next again
  15. Enter the name of the rule
  16. Click Finish

Step 5: Run Your Rules

Your rules will run automatically as email enters your inbox with the exception of your Archive rule.

From the Rules and Alerts dialogue box:

  1. Click Run Rules Now
  2. Select all the rules you’ve defined
  3. Run in the Folder: Inbox
  4. Check the Include subfolders option
  5. Click Run Now

In the screenshot below, I’ve created additional rules that I chose to run on an as needed basis.

inbox zero email

Within a few seconds, you’ll quickly see all your email get sorted and archived and now you too can enjoy empty inbox email bliss.

Caveats

This email management process works well and creates a clutter free inbox that only leaves today’s email and a few follow ups in the inbox.  However, you do need to remember to check the CC and Notifications folder to avoid missing out on any key responses.  On a few occasions, I’ve missed a Decline notice with a Propose New Time request so remember to check the folder.

The point of better email management is to keep your inbox clean and organized but you don’t want to miss a critical request amongst your 600 organized emails.  Run those rules and enjoy the feeling of achieving inbox zero and an empty inbox.

You’ll feel the momentary Zen like peace until the next email shows up.

About Andrew Makar

My official bio is I'm an "IT Director with delivery experience across projects, programs and portfolios in Automotive, Financial and Marketing industries". I've enjoy putting project management theory into real-world practice and over the years I've published and taught my approaches to Tactical Project Management.When I'm not working, writing, or teaching, I'm hanging out with my kids and learning the occasional card trick or two.
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