I may one day think myself uncharitable for saying so, but I’m increasingly convinced that folks working in technology who can’t manage their email inboxes are failing as knowledge workers. There’s some excuse for people whose brains aren’t trained to think about automation all day, but anyone capable of fizz buzz should be able to solve this problem.

My solution is simple:

For every incoming email message:
1. Read it, and take any required action.
2. If reading the email was a waste of time, filter it.
3. When you're done with the email, archive it.

That’s it! Not exactly rocket science. Details follow.


If your email inbox is already a mess, you need to start with a good baseline. Mark any backlog of unread messages as read. It’s too late to process it; just let it go. It’s okay to keep credit card bill notifications around until they’re paid, but everything that doesn’t require immediate or urgent action must be archived. Ditch the ads; unsubscribe if possible. This is also a good time to define or update your email filtering rules.

Read It and Take Action

An unread email is an email that requires your attention. Give it your attention, then make sure it’s marked so it doesn’t need your attention again.

It’s not necessary or appropriate to act on everything, but if you decide action is required, act! It’s okay to defer action if you need to collect your thoughts or put a rate limit on your communication, but don’t delay too long; 24 hours is usually an acceptable delay, particularly when multiple timezones are involved.

Filter It

Flag spam. Use filters. Unsubscribe from mailing lists in which you no longer participate. Don’t be a forwarding service. Boost your signal-to-noise ratio.

Every step of the procedure is required, but things fall apart fastest if this step is skipped. The filter step prevents email from consuming all of your productive time.

Archive It

The invitation to last year’s team-building event is no longer relevant. The Christmas e-card from a distant acquaintence to which you never replied isn’t calling you to action, it’s just clutter. If you expect to reference an email later, use folders or tags.

Inbox zero is a worthy goal, but it’s often impractical. Focus on keeping every inbox item meaningful and relevant.