I love getting emails.  Notes from friends, newsletters, invitations, project updates, blog comments . . . sometimes my email inbox feels like my portal to the “real world.”

However, when my portal starts getting crowded, it drives me crazy to dig through (and stress over) thousands of messages–some marked with stars, some needing a quick response, some requiring extra research, and some embarrassingly forgotten and buried eight months too long.

I finally came to accept the fact that I needed to change things up a bit in the email department (see how The Power of Acceptance is working for me?), so here’s how I took a process outlined in David Allen’s best-seller Getting Things Done ® and transformed my email inbox into blissful tranquility once and for all (doesn’t this sound like fun?).

STEP ONE: I created five folders to the left of my email inbox labeled as follows:

@Immediate Action

(The “@” sign brings these folders to the top, since they’re sorted alphabetically.)

@Action is for emails that require me to DO something–like donate to a cause, print an attachment, send a recipe to a friend, etc.  I only put emails into this folder that don’t have pressing deadlines.  These can be handled anytime in the next few months.

@Immediate Action is the folder I work from throughout the day.  These emails need to be handled within the next 24 to 72 hours (important business communication, messages regarding activities that week, etc.).  Before I go to bed at night, I check this folder to make sure nothing has been left undone.

@Incubation is where I put emails that can just sit and wait while I consider them.  They don’t have a deadline, and if I never get back to them, that’s okay.  (Like if someone tells me about a great deal on shoes.)

@Someday is for emails I definitely want to keep and do something about, but I don’t need or want to act on them right now.  This would include links to great websites, books to read, etc.

@Waiting is where I put emails that are waiting for a response from someone else.  Maybe I delegated part of a project to another person–I just keep a copy of that email in this folder, and I can check it occasionally to see if it’s done “waiting.”

STEP TWO: I created one additional folder labeled “To Sort.”

STEP THREE: I started from the top of my inbox and sorted every single email into one of those six folders (or into additional reference folders I’ll explain in a minute), so my inbox was absolutely empty.  The process really wasn’t that bad.  Here’s how I did it:

  • The first 100 emails took the most brain power, so I carefully went through them and put the most urgent and important ones into my @Immediate Action and @Action folders.  It felt so good to gather them into two little groups.  Once I had cleared out the emails that actually needed some sort of a response, the remaining 3500 emails didn’t seem quite so daunting.
  • When I came across hundreds of emails from the same sender, I created a new folder specific to that sender, like “Elementary School” or “Mom.”  And, of course, I unsubscribed from a bunch of lists and deleted as many emails as possible (Gmail lets me delete tons of emails in one fell swoop).
  • I’m also a big fan of Gmail because I can set up filters that will automatically put coupons, newsletters, etc. into folders for me–totally skipping my inbox.  That is a dream come true.
  • When I got tired of sorting emails (after about an hour), I still had 1,361 emails in my inbox.  I moved them all to the “To Sort” folder, and since my email provider has great search functions, it really doesn’t matter if all my emails are nicely tucked away into alphabetized reference files.  As long as nothing important is hidden within those emails, I can rest easy–knowing they’re ready for me to sort someday when my children go to college.

STEP FOUR: Now I just promise myself I’ll do two things: 

  • assign all incoming emails to a folder as soon as I read them (letting them build up again will just make me grumpy), and
  • check my @Immediate Action and @Action folders as often as my workload requires.

STEP FIVE: One final tip that saved my life is David Allen’s two-minute rule.  If I can handle an email in two minutes or less, I do it.  A quick reply to the sender will keep that email out of my “Action” folders.  Delegating a task in less than two minutes will allow me to file that email in my @Waiting folder.  Noting a baby shower directly on my calendar or quickly updating someone’s new contact information that they sent me will allow me to delete or file those emails, and it will save me tons of time in the future.

I have four children to love each day, and I don’t want to spend one extra ounce of energy fussing over emails.  Bringing order to this part of my life has given me the freedom to focus on the things (people) that really matter.  Would you like to join me?

QUESTION: Do you have any email tips you’d like to share?

CHALLENGE: Spend one hour this week creating an “email inbox of bliss.”


This post is based on Mind Organization for Moms, a GTD ®-based system developed by April Perry at The Power of Moms.


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