My Simple Method For Managing E-Mail (Inbox Zero)

Back when I was a full-time employee with Philips Lighting, I read a great book by David Allen titled Getting Things Done. This led me to reorganizing my MS-Outlook to inbox zero. It was one of the best things I ever did in terms of productivity because I never missed important emails and the system showed me what to tackle next. The stress relief was priceless too, because mentally it feels like you always have everything under control.

Over the years I briefly shared the system with a few colleagues who were interested when they saw it.

Because of my long-term relationship with MS-Outlook, I never took to the Gmail layout and to this day still find it a bit counter-intuitive and clunky to use. So today when I decided to sync my Verticulture email from Gmail to Outlook, I got my chance to resurrect my old Inbox Zero recipe. Let’s get to it.

*Yes, it’s possible to customize the layout that I’m about to share in Gmail as well. Still it just feels a bit different to me. Also, it’s not a 100% rendition of the GTD method, I’ve further modified it to my own needs. Please don’t publicly shame me, you GTD fanboys out there 🤣

Phase One – Create the submenus under your Inbox
The main goal is to sort and triage everything into their respective folders before you start getting into detail over individual emails.

So start by right clicking on Inbox and creating these folders shown in red box below. I use numbering in the folder names so that they automatically sort in order of importance.

These are the six main categories (the sixth folder is of course, Trash) and the rule is all email must be sorted into one category. When that is done, you have the completed Phase 1 of Inbox Zero.

Phase 2 – Sorting
The folders themselves are self-explanatory. The trick is that the folders are not just for storing incoming emails, I also used them to store outgoing emails.

1. Next Actions – Any email that requires a next action on the user’s part for the work to proceed (whether an email reply, approval or action).
2. Waiting For – Any email that is requires someone to reply, approve or do something
3. Read Later – Anything that requires more than 2 minutes of reading but doesn’t need a reply or follow-up action (like HR memos etc.)
4. References – Basically reference documents or emails that you file away so as not to clog up the inbox.
5. Someday Maybe – Projects that you might want to look at in future, but are currently not the focus.
6. Trash – Delete everything else

The only exceptions to the sorting procedure are:
– When you have something urgent that requires immediate attention
– When something can be closed in under 2 minutes

So what did I mean when I said that the folders are also used for outgoing mail? Well, let’s say I receive an email that I need to reply. I’ve sorted it, among others, into the Next Actions folder.

Relax, it’s not Dakota Johnson.

I then proceed to reply. My reply is a request for info, so I need to wait for Dakota to confirm something. Therefore I drag it from my Sent Folder to the Waiting For folder.

Now the original email from Dakota sitting in my Next Actions is no longer needed. The next action has been taken and the email is now awaiting his reply in the Waiting For folder. Therefore I delete the original email in Next Actions.

*most emails already contain the all prior emails in the chain so I usually just delete it. If it is a concern and you need a copy then just create a relevant folder in archives and transfer it there instead. Either way there should be only one active email floating around in your Inbox.

Just repeat this concept for everything. For example, if you have read an email in your Read Later folder, either move it to References, archive it or delete it.

It’s easier now to see why this is so effective. The unorganized chaos is now organized chaos, and worries melt away. The most urgent emails are always handled or else they go to the Next Actions folder, where you spent the most active working time. You can regularly keep tabs on what people owe you in the Waiting For folder. In the evenings or during down time you can focus on the Read Later folder. If you’re an INTJ like me, you might actually start looking forward to your inbox.

Phase 2 of Inbox Zero is complete when your Next Actions and Read Later folders are completely cleared.

Some Additional Ideas

For archives, I find it useful to create detailed archive folders and subfolders so that retrieval is super-efficient. Again i use the numbering system when naming them. If in future you want to add folders in between you can always use decimals, like in this example I used 2.2. Of course you can also omit using numbers and sort the folders manually.

Remove Uneccessary Features
Go to MS-Outlook View Settings and Options to remove all the functions you don’t need. Take some time to do this, it’s worth it. For me I always remove the importance, flags, icons, notifications and other useless stuff. It used to amaze me that people won’t take an extra few minutes to streamline a piece of software they could be using for years. Of course, I’ve also seen some MS-Outlook wizards who use all these tools and shortcuts for God-like productivity. If that’s you, respect. But I prefer to keep it simple.

Make The Effort To Block Spam
My email when I was in Philips was spam free. But Gmail is the exact opposite. So for spam or unwanted marketing that makes it into the Inbox, I’ll start making the effort to block or unsubscribe.

Also Applicable To Household Chores…?!
As mentioned in a previous post, I spend about 12-14 hours per day taking care of two hyperactive boys 😅. This means that the condo is always partially messy (if not totally) in some shape or form. There will be toys, dirty playmats, clothes, plates, bowls and cutlery lying around everywhere.

Thinking about my approach to the chaos, I realized that I’ve been implementing GTD in this area of life too. After handling the most urgent tasks, I triage the stuff that needs to be done. For example, dirty milk bottles go into a small pail. I collect all the plates and cutlery and organize them neatly in the sink (the washing hasn’t started yet but I wet the dishes to make the cleaning easier later).

So, if I get called away at any time or if someone else wanders in to the kitchen, it looks like an organized mess that they can actually take over, and continue the cleanup easily. Of course, my wife will tell you that there is room for improvement as it takes less than 2 minutes to rinse off the non-oily stuff 🤣 Currently I still mix them together in my sorting process.

Hope this helps. Any suggestions or criticisms, hit me up in the comments and thanks for reading.

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