Getting Emails to Zero

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.



  1. Christine says

    I found your post while desperately searching for help for my Inbox. I am getting emails from server saying my Inbox is full so it’s a vicious cycle for me to delete a few here and there and then more emails keep coming in, delete a few, get the Inbox is full message…. stop the madness! Thanks for the steps – I’m motivated to do it NOW. I’ve read GTD before but never fully implemented. I just did parts that I thought would fit my life. Thank you for motivating me to get my Inbox cleared and for rebooting GTD in me!

  2. Pegasos says

    I sorted my inbox last week. It was really unnerving to see an empty inbox at first, but now I will not go back to the old way. I have literally saved hours over the course of the week and it is so much easier to know just what needs to get done.

  3. says

    I love this – will give it a go – but I have three e-mail accounts (one work, one personal and one junk) and they are all on my mac… does this work on the macmail or do I have to log into gmail? Thanks April!

    • says

      Yes, you can create folders on your Mac that work the same way. I personally use the funny symbol above the Tab button ~ I like it better than @ except for folders marked by location – @office or @printer

  4. Laurie L says

    I can’t wait to try this on my 3 personal mailboxes AND my 2 business mailboxes. I know most of the excess is due to advertising emails that I just neglect to delete or send to SPAM. So I do have a tip for folks who get buried in this same way… to PREVENT the excess: At the first sign of “junk” email from a company or website you know you never want or need, resist the immediate DELETE impulse, and open the email, scroll to the bottom, and follow the instructions to REMOVE yourself from the mailing list (sometimes there are 2 places to remove, once for the specific email, and another more general mailing list). This will prevent future emails from these folks by nipping it in the bud early.

  5. says

    I had an email accident in February and got to inbox to 0 inadvertently. I have tried ever since to follow the Getting Things Done advice – I only have 21 messages in there at the moment, some of which need action, some of which need to be printed, etc. I had a few folders that I made after reading GTD initially but I found that they didn’t really work for me. So, I reread the book in February after my email accident and made different folders:
    @1Day – those thing stat need to be done in the next 24 hours (that can’t be done by following the 2 minute rule). Check this folder every day to do and clear out things.
    @1Week – those things that need to be done fairly quickly but not immediately. i.e. sign up the kids for hot lunch. I suppose some things in here could be put on the calendar with a website link. Review this folder periodically throughout the week, but most definitely by Thursday or Friday each week.
    @1Month – those things that aren’t urgent but still need to be done. Review this folder at least once a week (oldest notes first).
    @Someday – those things I want to do but aren’t at all urgent or timely. Vacation home info, fun things to do with the kids.
    @Reading – I put things in here that aren’t time sensitive but that I still want to read. I rarely get to this folder and am thinking I need to start an evernote with a link to the website or articles or clip the articles in evernote and leave them there for reading on my iPad when I have time?
    @Follow Up – I use this for things that have been delegated but I haven’t been disciplined enough about checking it and pinging people. When I do go back to the folder and check it, I find most things are done or have been handled. I feel better putting things in this folder rather than just deleting them and then forgetting about it and that someone else was handling it.
    @Writing – I used to use this folder to put writing ideas in (email to myself or an email from someone else that gave me an idea to write about). I have been slowly going through this folder and culling out the ideas and putting them into evernote (my favorite app, besides Facebook and starbuck’s), which is a much better system for me to keep track of my writing ideas.
    It is hard work to keep ~10 email accounts (work, personal, blog, school, etc.) managed. But not having junk in there are old stuff in there is much easier to deal with!
    I wrote a blog about the accidental inbox to 0 fiasco… Enjoy!

    • April Perry says

      LOVE those ideas! Thanks so much for recording them here on the site. You’re an inspiration!

    • April Perry says

      Yes–labels are folders. They will appear on the left and work exactly the same way. Then when you want to do a filter or move an email into a folder, you simply assign it with “labels.” One email can have several different labels and be found within each of those “folders.” Good luck!

      • Rebecca Webb says

        But then you still see them in the inbox . . . I was hoping to see an “empty” inbox. Maybe I’m confused.

        Thanks for your reply!

        • April Perry says

          Once something has been labeled, you can then do a “Move to” (pick the label) or simply click the “Archive” option at the top. That gets them out of the inbox and into the folders. You CAN see an empty inbox!

  6. kinnerfamily says

    This was so fun!! It didn’t take me nearly as long as I thought it would and I was able to easily place the e-mails in the folders I wanted them in. Now I won’t have to worry about the important ones getting buried! Thanks so much for your help!! Tanya

  7. Daisy Phillips says

    so I created the folders in macmail, but is it “on my mac?” And if I have three different email accounts and move an email from work and personal into a new folder in my “on my mac,” is it only temporarily there or permanently moved? sorry, such a newbie at this macbook thing and it’s driving me insane!


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