Keeping an empty email inbox

You may have heard of Getting Things Done (GTD).  I don’t know it well, but I’ve tried to apply a bit of it to the way I deal with emails.  Once upon a time I had deep, complex folder structures in Outlook to keep my email “tidy”.  Since starting to use Gmail for personal emails though, I’ve decided I want to avoid the time spent “filing”, and process emails in one of three categories:

  1. “Do something”.
  2. “Be aware of/remember something”.
  3. “Not needed”.

I’ve recently been asked by a colleague what my actual process is, so I thought I’d share it here in case it’s useful for anyone else that would like to simplify the way they deal with their emails.


  • Quickly deal with incoming emails.
  • No time spent on "filing" – be more like Gmail.
  • Make it easy to see what you have outstanding actions for, and hard to lose them and forget.
  • Make it easier to find things by using searching, sorting, filtering rather than rummaging through a complicated folder hierarchy.


  • Enable and increase the delay on Outlook desktop toast notifications.
    This means the toast popup will stay on the screen for longer, letting you at least finish the sentence you’re writing without worrying about it disappearing before you get to it.
  • Create "Inbox Archive" folder in the root “Mailbox – [Username]” folder.
    This is where all emails that you do decide to keep will end up.

Getting Started

This is the bit you won’t like, where I make you undo years of hard filing work.  Do it though; you’ll feel better for it as you loosen the email filing shackles!

  • Move any and all emails that are "helpfully" sorted into various folders into the Inbox Archive folder and delete the folders they were in.
  • Go through the Inbox previewing every email and clicking the flag column on anything that needs something doing by you.  Don’t cheat – this shouldn’t take long because you’re just going down the list quickly.
  • Sort by "flagged" and move anything that’s not flagged to the Inbox Archive folder.
  • Re-sort by "Arranged by date".

You should now only have things in that require you to perform an action or compose a reply.  Lovely!

New Email Workflow

The aim here is to try and deal with emails from the “toast” popup in Outlook as they arrive in the same way you might approach an exam paper – do the quick ones first, knowing you’ll come back to the harder ones later.  The toast window contains useful buttons: Flag and Delete, as well as the ability to click on the popup to see the message in full.  All without actually opening the main Outlook window (something I try to avoid doing).

  • If you can immediately tell you don’t need it (e.g. spam or webinar adverts you don’t have time for), click the delete button.
  • If you immediately know it will take more than two minutes to deal with, click the flag button and go back to what you were doing.
  • Otherwise, click the “toast” popup to see the message in full.
  • If you can deal with it in less than two minutes, do what’s necessary then use the “move to folder…” toolbar button to move it to the “Inbox Archive” folder when you’re done.
  • If you don’t need it, click the delete button.
  • If you need longer than two minutes to deal with it, click the flag button on the toolbar and go back to what you were doing.


  • Check there are no un-flagged emails in Inbox – flag or archive as necessary.
  • Deal with some flagged emails, then flag as complete (click the flag column again).


Archiving can be done in a few ways:

Drag and drop

You can literally drag and drop emails from your Inbox to the Inbox Archive folder.  I don’t recommend it because it’s easy to accidentally drop them in the wrong place, and you can only do this with the main Outlook window open.

The “Move to Folder” toolbar button

This is available in the Outlook main window, and also in the email window you get when you view an email directly.

A macro

I personally have an “Archive” toolbar button the main Outlook window that I pointed to a customised version of this Outlook VBA macro to move items from one folder to another.  It only saves one mouseclick over the "”Move to folder” button, but does earn me some geek points so if you’re a geek this is what I’d expect you to do.

Going on holiday/long term sick leave

Of course, if you’re going to be away from your email for any significant amount of time (you know what this is based on your current email throughput), then your inbox can overflow while you’re away.  To avoid this, try this tip: create a rule that deletes all incoming email, regardless of sender or content.  Then, setup an out of office reply that tells senders that your emails are being deleted, that you won’t respond, but that you’ll be back on xyz date and they may try again then.  Be sure to offer an alternative contact though, for urgent queries.  There’s a Lifehacker article on creating effective, professional “out of office” replies that I recommend you take a look at.


I hope this is useful to someone other than me.  Let me know if it works for you!