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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2019 / Winter 2020)

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The Joy of the Empty Inbox

By Linda Merillat, Washburn University, School of Nursing 

This semester I’ve been able to achieve a long-term goal – continually operating with an Empty Inbox (Figure 1)!  It has taken many years to develop a strategy that works for me.  It is so freeing not to be weighted down each day with an endless list of emails.  It really allows me to focus on what is important, prioritize my efforts, and ensures I’m not accidentally forgetting about or overlooking important correspondence.

Fig. 1.  Screenshot of Empty Inbox

Applied Inbox Management Strategies 

I’ve outlined the strategies I’ve developed below.  The suggestions I’ve outlined work specifically with Outlook in Office 365, but many of the concepts can be applied to other email management systems.  

1.  Delete as many messages as possible when received.  I probably delete 25-30 e-mails a day.  This includes calendar invitation acceptances or declines.  You can look at the calendar event to see who has accepted or declined.

2.  If you’re getting spam or junk mail, you can use one of these approaches.  In most cases, it is quicker just to delete the e-mail, so I don’t always take this step.

a. Unsubscribe.  I only do this with reputable organizations.  Unsubscribe links can be used for phishing.

b. Mark as Junk.

c. Set up a rule to automatically delete.

3.  If you get messages that you really don’t want to read, but don’t want to get rid of either, 

a. Set up a rule to send to a folder and mark as read

b. In Office 365, click on the Gear icon for Settings.

c. Scroll to the bottom, click on View all Outlook settings.

d. Select Rules.

e. Click on Add New Rule.  Make entries for the conditions and the actions.  (Figure 2) 

Fig. 2.  Add a New Rule 

4. When reading emails, I make sure it is marked as read.  This ensures the number of unread e-mails reported accurately reflects the number of unread e-mails.  I recently worked one-on-one with one of my faculty members, and she had 40,000 unread emails!

Necessary Work 

5. If the email requires me to do something,

a. I just do it at that moment whenever possible.

b. If I plan to complete the task in the current week, I leave it in my Inbox (Marked as Read).

c. If it is a task that I just don’t want to forget, I flag it (Figure 3).  It is automatically added to my Task list (Figure 4).  Tasks are integrated into Outlook.  It is the fourth icon at the bottom of the left-hand navigation pane.   (You may have to activate the option to manage flagged e-mails the first time you open the Tasks or To Do application.)

Fig. 3. Flagged Email

Fig. 4. Tasks Icon from Left-hand Navigation

6. If an email is critical, in Outlook in Office 365 only, you have the option of pinning it (Figure 5).  Pinned emails always stay at the top of the Inbox.

Fig. 5.  Pinned Email

Recordkeeping through Efficient Filing 

7. When I send or reply to a message, I always cc: (carbon copy) myself.  That way I always have a copy of the conversation saved together in the same folder.  It means I have one extra email to file, but it means all the different emails related to a topic can be filed together.  For me, it makes it easier to find something when I go back and look for it.

8. File it.  I’ve created an extensive system of file folders.  I file everything.  As soon as I’ve read an email and if there is no further action required, I file it.

9. I do not have email on my phone.  The success of my approach depends heavily on being able to easily file emails immediately.  It’s too hard to attempt this on a phone.  If I read my email on my phone, it would mean having to re-read it again later when I am at a computer. 

10. If I reply to someone, and I am expecting a reply, I file it.  Life is too short to continually follow up on other people.  If it is important, the topic will resurface in another way.

Setting Priorities 

11. I organize my task list and re-prioritize items by High, Normal, and Low (Figure 6).  My task list consists of items I’ve added manually, and tasks generated from emails. Tasks generated from emails are always given a normal priority.  For manually added tasks, you can add a due date.  For flagged emails, right-click on the flag to set a due date (Figure 7).  Microsoft is changing how it manages Tasks vs. the To Do list, so what appears in your application may vary.

Fig. 6.   Prioritized Task List

Fig. 7.  Adding a Due Date to a Flagged Item

12. I don’t want to get so caught up doing everyday tasks that I forget about my major projects.  I create a draft email with my list of major projects so it easy to go back and reference it (Figure 8).  Drafts are created by simply starting an email but not sending it.  I use draft emails like others might use sticky notes on their desktop.  I work on four different computers in three different locations.  It’s important to keep my “virtual” desk with me.

Fig. 8.  Sample Draft Email

Discipline and Follow-through 

13. A critical part of this process is being disciplined.  I work the tasks that are in my Inbox – no matter how inconvenient or loathsome.  Just Do It!

14. When my Inbox is empty, I toggle to Tasks and start working the prioritized list.  I periodically check the list of major projects in my Drafts to be sure they are on track.

Notes on iPhone

15. At times, it is important that I have quick access to something on my phone.  I use Notes for this purpose.  Notes if found at the bottom of the left-hand navigation in Outlook.  Notes are synchronized with my iPhone.  I use this primarily to keep track of my shopping list for the store!
16. If you want to start this process yourself, there are a couple of options.

a. Archive messages.  Outlook can be set up to automatically archive messages after a certain time period.  The messages are not deleted.  They are simply moved to an Archives folder.  The process for archiving varies depending which version of Outlook you are using.  I recommend using the desktop version of Outlook to set up archiving because it has a more complete set of options.

b. Manually archive messages in an A - History folder.  If you are not comfortable using the automated archive process, you can create your own archive folder.  In past, when I’ve become inundated with message, I’ve created a folder called A – History.  I preface it with A – so it sorts to the top of my folder list.  I then drag all the emails over, so I have a fresh starting point.

These are the strategies I’ve adopted, and I’ve been able to use them successfully for several weeks to keep my Inbox empty or nearly empty.  Try it, and experience the joy of an empty inbox!

About the Author 

Linda Merillat, Ph.D., has played many different roles in her career: programmer, systems analyst, business analyst, interaction designer, program manager, project manager, consultant, trainer, educator, instructional designer, researcher, author, and entrepreneur. Dr. Merillat's experience and skills represent a union between technology, education, and interaction design. In the course of her career, the common thread running throughout has always been the challenge of how to successfully use and integrate the latest technology into an organization.  She currently holds a faculty position with the School of Nursing at Washburn University, in the role of Instructional Designer.

Her email is  

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