Getting a minimalist e-mail inbox is not quite as hard as it initially appears.
As part of my own journey to digital minimalism, as well as physical minimalism, I spent time trying to come to terms with my e-mail inbox. It wasn’t necessarily a difficult process, more of a concerted effort to find the right process and stick with it. Here’s how digital and e-mail decluttering works for me. Please feel free to add comments at the end.
The short way to an empty e-mail inbox.
Not everyone will like this one, but its quick and effective.
Create a new folder called ‘Old E-Mail’
Select all of the mail in your inbox, move it to the ‘Old E-mail’ folder mentioned above.
Sit back in awe of your empty inbox.
That was easy wasn’t it. OK, OK, so not everyone will go for this way of getting the result. The lesson here, is that you can get results quickly. I have used this method in the past. If you just need to get away from the mass of mail and you are completely overwhelmed its not a bad place to start. You can then go back and pick out individual e-mails as you need them.
The long way to an empty e-mail inbox.
Perhaps a longer term solution, and one I’ve been using for a year or so is the following.
The solution is based on having a number of temporary time based folders, and then a set of project folders. Initially mail is put into the time based folders until actioned. Longer term storage is addressed with the project folders. It is worth noting that I took the initial idea for this from a Gmail based App I once saw. If anyone knows the name of it, I’m happy to reference it. The mailbox declutter below will work on most mail systems.
So lets look at this visually.
Firstly, your inbox remains as-is. As your inbox.
Then create the following folder structure. I used the name ‘experiment’ for the top level folder, but you can call it anything that makes sense to you.
The ‘Later’ folder
This folder stores any mail that you will act on later today. That’s it. It must be empty at the end of the day.
The ‘Tomorrow’ folder
This folder contains any e-mail that you will be acting on tomorrow. I use it for meeting confirmations, addresses and anything that I need to follow up tomorrow. If I haven’t completed anything in the Later folder by the end of the day, I’ll drag it into the Tomorrow folder when I’ll act on it.
The ‘Next Week’ folder
Following on from the structure above, you can guess that this folder contains anything I need to do next week. Anything not completed on a Friday might end up here for example. I don’t check e-mail at the weekend.
The ‘In a Month’ and ‘SomeDay’ folders
It should be easy to spot the reason for these. These mails are mostly reminders. You shouldn’t really have any more than 10 e-mails in these folders.
The overarching principle on all of the folders is that they should be as empty as possible. Folder contents are checked twice each day, once at the beginning, once at the end. The time is up to you, but I only check e-mail twice per day. That way I can get on with the actual doing. Remember, File, Act, Delete. File being putting the mail in its project folder, Act on the mail there and then, or Delete the e-mail. I tend to delete e-mail threads, leaving only the latest part of a conversation, though I should point out that collaboration tools like Slack and Asana are far better for conversations like this.
The ‘For Info’ folder
I try not to keep anything here, but sometimes I keep receipts, just in case something breaks a few weeks after purchase. The odd conversation that I think is resolved, but might come back to live another day. The odd offer I may come back to or someone may need. The contents of this folder are auto-deleted after 3 months.
I’ve not shown these, but my work is generally project based. Anything that’s important is stored in these folders. When the project is complete, I archive these folders to hard drive/cloud storage.
On a typical day
I open my mail in the morning between 6 and 7am. I used to be a 10am man, but with the move to Cambodia I tend to get e-mail out of the way first thing. I check my inbox first. Then I move the few items in the timed folders to where it ought to be, act on it, or delete it. Marketing mails are unsubscribed to there and then. I have less than five subscriptions and I always tick the opt-out of e-mail boxes if I buy anything online. Sadly this doesn’t stop you receiving spam, or companies adding you back into their mailing lists.
This leaves my inbox clear unless there’s something I’m working on. I pick things out of the ‘Later’ folder as I attend to them.
I occasionally delete mail as I see it come in, or if I’m waiting for someone or traveling I may check my inbox again. It’s not that important that I do so.
The majority of my working day is doing just that; working. In the main, I really don’t like distractions, mail notifications are turned off unless I specifically turn them on if I’m waiting for a reply.
It’s also worth noting that I do use Evernote and OmniFocus as my main productivity tools. Evernote Premium has the wonderful e-mail option (that used to be in the free version) where you can e-mail things to your Evernote account. Great for blog ideas, warranty information and resources.
At the end of each working day, I’ll check mail again, and go through the same process as I do in the morning.
That’s it. My minimalist e-mail inbox method.
This sort of entry always generates comments and questions. Please feel free to add your thoughts.