Whether you're just getting back from a relaxing vacation or just fighting the onslaught of daily messages, staring down the barrel of a loaded inbox can be a pretty demoralizing experience. There's just something fundamentally confidence-killing about having so many messages calling for your attention in one place. But with a little bit of methodology and some intelligent technology, you can get your e-mail inbox to empty in short order.
For those who aren't familiar with the concept of Inbox Zero, here's the two-sentence introduction: Since your e-mail inbox is likely ground zero for most of the important demands you deal with in your work life, if not your entire life, it's essential to keep it free of clutter and under control. The best way to do that is to empty it daily, dealing with each incoming message as it comes in.
1. Create Folders
My favorite way to deal with any overwhelming productivity crisis is to apply a little triage. In this case, I use folders to sort messages by priority level. How you label the folders is up to you. I use "Today," "Tomorrow," and "This Week" to give myself three distinct levels of priority and lighten the pressure a bit. Then I set about sorting the glut of messages in the inbox, as I'll discuss below.
2. Apply Filters
No matter what kind of mail client you use, it almost certainly includes a feature to let you filter the messages in your inbox, either by subject, by sender, or by domain. Use these filters to surface messages that are likely to need a response soon. For instance, you might filter just for messages from your boss, and send them all straight to the Today folder (or even give them a folder of their own), so you don't risk overlooking important marching orders in the mess.
3. Kill the Weeds
For most of us, the majority of all incoming e-mail correspondence that isn't spam still basically counts as junk. Before you start sorting messages in earnest, quickly skim through the subject lines for obvious rubbish, selecting them as you go and deleting them in bulk. That'll wipe out a substantial portion of the detritus all at once. Then, as you get into sorting, continue ruthlessly deleting anything that doesn't appear to have any likely value for you. If you're on the fence about some messages, just archive them to get them out of your way, and you can always call them back up later with a quick search.
4. Skim and Sort
Here's where those folders from Step 1 come in. Start at the top of your inbox, with the most recent messages, and skim the senders and subject lines to get a quick, 1-second impression of what folder each message belongs in. If you need more context, pop open the message and give it a quick glance, but don't get bogged down in any given message for longer than a few seconds unless you think you can dispense with it for good in less than a minute. (If you can, then deal with it appropriately and get it out of your hair.) For this step, Gmail users may want to increase the number of visible messages in the inbox.)
5. Tackle the First Folder
Using the above method, it should be possible to sort a thousand e-mails in less than an hour (especially given that many of them will end up in the trash). Your inbox should now be empty, apart from the steady trickle of new messages that will appear every few minutes. For now, ignore any new messages and start working on your Today folder.
If you've created a special Boss folder, you may want to check that out first, skimming it for things that need a quick, immediate response, things that need to go into the Today folder, and things that can be either deleted or postponed to Tomorrow or This Week.
This approach works well for me whenever I come back from a vacation, creating a simple framework for quickly prioritizing a large accumulation of messages without getting bogged down in the details, so I can focus on the most important stuff without letting other commitments slip through the cracks.