How to Keep Your Email Inbox Under Control: Rules for Keeping Your Inbox Clean

The goal of email management is twofold:

1. keep your inbox clean (as in empty, or as close to empty as you can)
2. keep your filing cabinet(s) tidy (i.e. keep emails that have real value only) and purging it from time to time

These can be seen as rules: keep your inbox clean; keep your filing system tidy.

In this post, I’ll touch on rules for keeping your inbox clean and in the next post, I’ll tackle rules for keeping your filing cabinet tidy.

Clean Inbox

Your inbox is like your home mailbox. You don’t let your mail accumulate in your mailbox. You take it out of the mailbox and bring it into your home for processing. With email, it’s similar, but you process them at the “door”.

At home, if your letters and promotional brochures accumulate in your mailbox, soon, your mail will fall on the ground for lack of space in your mailbox. When your email inbox is cluttered, many emails fall on the ground, so to speak: they fall through the cracks.

To keep your inbox clean, you must decide what to do with every item in your inbox. This requires that you make decisions—fast. While you’re sorting out the emails in your inbox, new ones keep coming. Thus, you must act fast and not relent if you want to beat that influx of emails.

The “Touch Once” Rule

To help you decide quickly, you can use the “touch once” rule. This rule stipulates that you handle an email once.

“Click”, you open the email. Now, right here and there, you must decide the fate of the email. One touch, that’s all you get.

You must choose one of the following four options:

1. Delete (which means you have nothing to do and there’s no need to file this email)
2. Do now (which means you handle the email’s request right away and then delete or file this email)
3. Defer or Do later (which means put a task on your calendar and then delete or file this email)
4. Delegate (which means assigning the action item to someone else and then delete and file this email)

You’ll notice that each of these options require that you either delete or archive the email. This right here is where your inbox gets clean. Anytime you touch an email, you must make those decisions.

This is hard; you must resist the urge to procrastinate, which is easy to do when it comes to emails. In fact, it’s easy to say, “I’ll reopen this email later.” The more disciplined you are in processing emails after one touch, the cleaner your inbox will be.

Using Rules

There’s a way to “protect” your inbox and prevent it from being uselessly cluttered. That way is by having your email client (e.g. MS Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo mail, etc.) deal with those email upon reception.

Most email clients automatically send spam emails to your “junk mail” or “spam” folder. They have a built-in rule that allows them to know when someone is sending you unsolicited emails and “block” those emails before they get to your inbox.

At work, I use MS Outlook as an email client, and it allows users to set up rules. I won’t explain rules in detail here. But suffice to say that rule allows users to decide what happens to an email upon reception.

For example, if you don’t want to see emails from John, you can set up a rule that says, “Delete any email from John.” And anytime John sends you an email, the email is automatically deleted.

I don’t know that other email clients offer such feature, but if yours does, you should take advantage of it.

If your email client doesn’t offer this feature, the “touch once” rule is as close as it gets. Like anything, you’ll improve as you discipline yourself to use this rule.


About The Author

Vladimir Elie

I help people learn and apply success principles and strategies so that they can get the results they want in life.