People are often surprised that I have an empty email inbox most of the time. Actually, it’s really not difficult.

Of course, until I found out about the secret of having an empty inbox, I was completely overwhelmed all the time, and always had thousands of messages in various states of read, unread, filed or unfiled. There’s a bunch of systems you can use – but I’ve taken what I think are probably the simplest and most repeatable steps of all the versions I’ve read.

Once you realise that there are only three types of email, it all suddenly becomes very simple. You don’t need a book to tell you how to do it, a special email ‘diet’ or a seminar that costs hundreds.

For this to work, you will need a single archive folder (Gmail has this automatically) – not a series of folders for lots of projects. You will need some sort of To-Do list (for me it’s Things). You will need a calendar or diary (I use iCal on the Mac). And that’s it.

Of course, it can take a while to claw your way to zero the first time out, but once you’re there, it’s easy to stay there – as long as you remember that simple fact: there are only three types of email. Every piece of email is one of those types. Process it accordingly, and that part of your system will always be up to date.

1) Things I have to DO

A lot of the email I get requires some sort of action on my part. In fact, most of my work arrives by email. It might be a request to attend a meeting, reply to somebody about something, pick up something from somewhere, or write a book.

Here’s where I have to make a decision: Do I do it now? Or do I do it later?

David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) suggests a two-minute rule. That seems about right. If it will take you less than two minutes to do the thing, do it now. Then you can archive the email and it’s out of your inbox.

Otherwise, if it’s something to do that will take longer than two minutes, put it on your ‘to do’ list – and then archive the email. You’ll deal with it as appropriate, and the email will always be findable again if you want to refer to it. But it’s out of your inbox, and not cluttering up the space that should only ever be a temporary home for stuff you haven’t dealt with yet.

2) Things I have to KNOW

If it’s something you have to know, then read it, make a note of the important points if you have to – and then archive the email… or – in most cases, you can probably delete it. If the point of the email was just to make you aware of something, then it’s done its job, and you can get rid of it.

If it’s too long to read in two minutes, put ‘Read email about X’ into your to-do list, then archive it. You’ll get to it when you get to it. It doesn’t have to clutter up your inbox or be constantly in your face demanding your attention.

If it’s something you need to file away, like a password for a website or a confirmation of something, then it’s fine in the archive. You’ll be able to find it just by typing in a key word or phrase at a later date if you need it again – but it doesn’t need to go in a specific folder and it certainly doesn’t need to stay in your inbox. Just the big, searchable archive will be fine.

3) Trash

ALL other kinds of email are trash and you can delete them. This is true for most email. I go through my email inbox with my finger on the delete key and I press it a lot. If it’s stuff I never want to see again, it gets the big ‘thumbs down’ button, which marks it as spam.

If it’s not something you need (or want) to do, or something that you need (or want) to know, then it is, by definition, trash. Just delete it.

It takes me, on average, about 3 seconds per email to decide which of the three types it is. And then I deal with it accordingly.

Inboxes are, to me, temporary places that are only for stuff that I haven’t made decisions about yet. Nothing is in there from one day to the next. Any more than ten emails in there at any one time feels a bit excessive. I tend to go through it several times a day, but I quite often like to just reduce it to once a day.

Those steps in brief:

If it’s something you have to DO, then either do it or put it on your To-Do list, and archive the email.

If it’s something you have to KNOW, then read it, and archive the email.

If it’s TRASH, just delete it.

Simple as that.

A few more quick tips:

1) Sending email encourages others to send you email. If you want less email, send less email.

2) People appreciate short responses that are to the point. Three sentences is probably enough in almost every situation.

3) Set up filters. There are common phrases and common types of email that you could do without ever seeing again. Spam filtering is one thing, but auto-deleting any email that meets certain criteria that you notice popping up is a good idea too. For me, ‘Apologies for cross-posting’ will automatically get an email trashed. I won’t even see it. If it’s a really relevant call for academic papers, somebody will email me directly.

Practice makes perfect

I’ve been doing this for several years now, I have about 300 filters set up in Gmail – and my threshold for marking something as ‘spam’ is incredibly low. There is very seldom a false positive on my Spam – to the point where it’s not actually even worth checking.

But all this makes my email inbox incredibly useful and efficient, and every message that deserves a response always gets one straight away.

Stick with it. It’ll take a little while for it to become habit.

You need to trust (and use!) your To-Do list and your calendar – and trust that the search function will easily find that email in your Archive again if you ever need it. Getting it out of your inbox is the key to dealing with things appropriately, and giving them the attention they deserve when they deserve it.

It’s about turning a source of overwhelm and stress into a useful tool for communication. Hope you find that helpful.