Clean Inbox

This post is step one of my productivity philosophy, which you can follow to help you find more time to concentrate on the things that matter. For the introduction to my philosophy and its golden rules, please visit here.

Step 1 is called ‘Clean Inbox’ which describes an email inbox which is not cluttered with previously read mail, allowing you to focus on your priorities and decide how you want to spend your time. This post is for you if any of the following are true:

  • You have more than 20 emails in your inbox right now
  • You sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of email you receive
  • You long for the day when you are ‘on top’ of your inbox overload

What’s the fuss?

Email messages are either about your priorities, someone else’s priorities, or are simply junk. By keeping all those messages you are allowing those priorities to become blurred. You are allowing your priorities to be driven by the people that email you the most.

Email that sits in your inbox is like a loan. The longer it spends in there the more you will read, reread and rereread it. You are paying the interest in your time.

Not only do you waste time, you are far more likely to act on emails more than once if they are sitting in your inbox. This is duplication of effort and goes against golden rule #1 – Don’t do it Twice.

I’m not alone here – there are plenty of other people out there who agree with me – if you’re still unsure, why don’t you also have a look at the Inbox Zero philosophy.


Below are the methods I use to help me stay on top of my workload. They’ve been honed from years of research and trial and error.

Smart Categorisation

First things first, apply golden rule #5 to the problem – Categorise for your Lives. In order to do this you need to setup a sensible folder structure within your email program. If you’re not sure how to do this, follow these steps from Addictive tips (great site BTW). I use the following folders in my email client:

  1. Incoming folders
      1. Inbox,
      2. CCd,
      3. Meeting Requests,
  2. Filing folders
    1. Business Area 1,
    2. Business Area 1,
    3. Business Area 3,
    4. Misc.

The Incoming folders are the folders that I use rules to filter incoming mail – see below. The Business Area folders should be named after your three or four big work-streams in your role. I wouldn’t advise having many more than 4 to keep your categorisation nice and simple.

After you have created these folders you can do the one-time activity of moving all your mail from your inbox into the filing folders. As you move each item – if there is an outstanding action on the mail – flag this for follow up in your email client. If you’re not sure what folder to put something in – be brave and throw it into the Misc folder. Life’s too short right? Once you’re done you can sit back and admire your empty inbox – feels good doesn’t it?

Weekly spring clean

Every Monday morning I spend 5-10 minutes repeating the above steps of flagging emails and moving them so I start the week with a blank canvas. This ensures that all actions are on my task list, and my inbox is clean ready for the weekly onslaught. Golden rule #4 – Plan your Priorities means that you should put aside time for this activity (perhaps by booking out your diary) to ensure that your priorities are achieved.


Many email clients (e.g. Outlook) allow you to create rules that automatically send mail to specified folders. There are two rules I use:

      • Mail that I’m CCd on goes straight in the CCd folder. Already this is like a low priority filter (if I’m not the main recipient then it can’t be too vital – can it?)
      • Meeting requests go straight in the meeting requests folder – this also provides a nice visual to show how many outstanding meeting invites I have.

Don’t go mad on rules, you can end up setting up very complicated filters that actually don’t add value.


This is an incoming email action plan that gives you four actions you choose between on any incoming email.

A – Action (i.e. deal with/answer the email if it is a quick one, then delete or file)
B – Bin (i.e. delete the email)
C – Categorise (i.e. flag for follow up and move into the relevant folder)
D – Delegate (i.e. send to the appropriate person if not you)

The key thing here is to follow golden rule #1 – Don’t do it Twice. You should only ever read an email once when it’s in your inbox. While you’re reading the mail decide which of A B C D actions you wish to take, and then follow through.


So if you follow these steps you should find yourself with a Clean Inbox, which should help you to prioritise your time and concentrate on things that are really important to you. We’ve looked at Smart Categorisation to help you keep everything in its rightful place, Rules to use your email client to make your life easier, the Weekly Spring Clean which resets your inbox back to a clean place, and ABCD actions that should help you stay on top of things

Other resources

A popular book available on Amazon is Taming the E-mail Beast: 45 Key Strategies for Better Managing Your E-mail Overload which is a great start if you’re like me and enjoy reading books to help formulate a plan.

Microsoft always have good stuff about their Office products, and they have an email productivity post here which is a good read.

The Mind Tools website has an excellent post on email productivity focusing more on how to stay on top of your inbox.

The Get It Done Guy has a great podcast series, and this link takes you to a page where he talks about email productivity in his own unique style.