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Keeping my Inbox Empty

Jude Travers-Frazier

5 min read

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On most nights, I manage to go home with an empty inbox. The 50 or so e-mails that I receive during my commute home and into the evening are almost always gone before my head hits the pillow. While I know lots of people who receive more e-mail than I do — I usually get between 250 and 450 messages per day — I manage to maintain a perfectly empty inbox without deleting a single e-mail, without filing a single e-mail, and while retaining the ability to find any e-mail I’ve ever sent or received in a matter of seconds. How do I do it? It’s actually pretty simple.

A combination of tools and techniques allow me to work this way:

    1. Leveraging Outlook’s “Instant Search” capabilities


    1. Practicing the four Ds: “Do it, Drop it, Delegate it or Defer it”


    1. Minutia: tips, tricks and add-ins

1. Instant Search

Arguably the best thing to happen to e-mail in a long time, Outlook’s Instant Search function works so well that I can find any e-mail that I know I have ever sent or received with just a simple query right in Outlook’s browser window. As an attorney, I used to create intricate folder structures in which to file e-mails; Outlook’s terrible ability to search required doing so in order to be able to find anything. Now, every piece of e-mail I send or receive gets stored in a single folder.

(Instant Search requires Outlook 2007 or 2010 and Windows 7, although the functionality can be replicated using Microsoft Desktop Search and other versions of Windows/Outlook.)

While conforming to my firm’s retention policy, I keep every single e-mail in one folder (aptly named All). At +250,000 items and +12GB, it’s not the largest mailbox folder in existence. It’s my understanding, however, that it really doesn’t matter how large the folder grows. I won’t ever experience performance issues, and, using proper search techniques (see this Micrsoft article for a description of the search query syntax), I can find what I want instantly just by knowing what it is I’m looking for.

A little while back, IBM released the results of a study which concluded that “actively creating [and filing into] folders does not increase efficiency or success” in finding e-mails at a later date. Specifically, they found that it took an average 17 seconds to find an e-mail using search as compared to 58 seconds when navigating through folders to find a message. Add to that the fact that “10% of [a person’s] total email time [is spent] filing messages,” and the conclusion is that you can save yourself a lot of time if you stop filing messages and just learn to search for them properly.

For those of you (attorneys in particular) who may not believe this is possible or practical, think about it this way: whatever criteria you use to file the e-mail in the first place are, and always will be, inherent in the e-mail (sender, recipient, date, subject, body or attachments). Down the road, when you need to locate that e-mail, the memory cues that you would otherwise use to navigate to that e-mail in your folder structure can be applied to a search query, allowing you to find it with greater ease than a combination of navigating and searching.

2. The Four Ds: “Do it, Drop it, Delegate it or Defer it”

I don’t know if he gets credit for it, but I first came across the Four Ds when reading Scott Hanselman article on Zero Email Bounce. Though I was already a practicioner of both the empty inbox and the philosophy articulated in the Four Ds, it resonated.

It boils down to the following: treat your inbox like a To Do list, and when you are going through your inbox (whether you do so regularly throughout the day, on a set schedule, or in some other fashion), do not move on to the next message until you have acted on the one you are viewing.

Your actions can either be to “do” whatever it is that the e-mail requires you to do; delete the message so that it is no longer in your inbox*; delegate the “to do” action (typically by forwarding the message to someone else); or else defer the action.

(*Previously, I indicated that I don’t delete any messages. While I hit the ‘delete’ key to get things out of my inbox and into the Deleted folder, as I discuss below I actually move those to the All folder on a periodic basis.)

The last D – deferring – one was one of the keys to my becoming successful at maintaining a clean inbox while not losing track of my responsibilities. While there are lots of ways to defer an e-mail/action, the method I practice is to move the e-mail to my calendar. As I discuss below, I have an add-in which makes this a single-click action, and allows me to postpone addressing an issue until some appropriate time in the future. This means that I have to be religious about addressing calendar reminders when they pop up, but here, too, the 4 Ds reapply: either act on the action or reschedule it to some future time/date when you expect you will be able to act.

3. Tips, tricks and add-ins

The rest are details. I use an Outlook add-in named SimplyFile, which accomplishes three essential tasks:

    1. When I send a new message, it automatically files the sent copy in my All folder.


    1. When I reply to or forward an e-mail it not only files my sent item, it also files the original message to which I am replying or fowarding to my All folder, saving me the extra step of having to deal with that originating message.


    1. It includes a ‘Schedule it’ button on my Outlook ribbon which allows me to turn an e-mail into a calendar appointment.

One of my 4 Ds is to delete messages, which I do in the normal fashion. Microsoft recommends that you not let your Inbox, Sent Items or Deleted Items folders grow too large, so every now and then I move everything from Deleted Items to All. I do the same thing for the Sent Items folder (even though not much accumulates there due to SimplyFile, messages sent from my iPhone or iPad get copied there).

I do, as appropriate, file messages into my firm’s document management system, in accordance with our retention policy. The technique I outline above, however, is one that is practicable both for handling your non-filed e-mails and by people who do not have a DMS integrated with Outlook.

And that’s it. There are countless articles written on additional techniques for prioritizing messages, compartmentalizing your day to enable you to manage e-mail effectively, etc. While everyone needs to find a method that works for them, I can tell you quite honestly that I actually feel good when I see an empty inbox. It has been worth it to develop the habits and techniques that allow me to accomplish that on a daily basis.

Finally, for anyone still using complex folder structures, I strongly encourage you to consider leveraging the power of Instant Search in Outlook 2010 & 2007. You can find what you need just as fast if not faster, and you can save yourself a lot of time in not filing in the first place.