Every once in awhile I tweet out a picture of my empty inbox along with a pleased comment and the hashtag, #inboxzero. Why? Well, for a few reasons. First off, I’m guessing that less than 10% of my world ever actually achieves #inboxzero, even for a few moments. I’m proud of that fact, the fact that I’m able to achieve something that many are not. Second, I do it to inspire others about the possibilities. Most people have an inbox full of useless emails; subscriptions they don’t care about, newsletters they’ve never read, a chance to win a free vacation and Farmville notifications. Somewhere in there are important emails from your family, friends, and colleagues. So how do you manage it? Well you can’t just step right into the game. First, you need to train and practice. Here’s your preparation.

Almost as important as managing the emails you do want is trying to make sure that you’re not overwhelmed by the ones you don’t. There are several key steps to doing this. Start by unsubscribing from regular emails that you don’t need. Don’t care that Staples is giving 7% off envelopes? Disinterested in the fashion choices of the rich and famous? Unsubscribe. By doing so, you will help manage the physical number of irrelevant emails so that you can focus on the important ones.

This next step is actually about your outgoing emails but as you start to do it more and more, you might find it rub off on some of your email associates. Start using subject lines that matter. Re: hey is awful. Re: just checking in is a waste of time. If you’re going to take the time to enter a subject line, please for the love of god make it in some way meaningful. When you use obtuse subject lines, you make it more difficult to track that email. Don’t be obtuse.

Finally, folders. I admit that much of this is about my own compulsions. I cannot stand mess. If you look at my room or my desk or my car you would beg to differ but most of those are the results of external influences (wife, child, time). Also, they’re not where I work. I work on my computer and THAT is immaculate. From my file structure to my media, everything is carefully arranged so that I can get to it quickly and easily. I use folders for files but I also use folders in my email life. Regularly. How is a little more complex.

I’ll use only my “work” email as an example. I started by creating a folder called projects. As I receive emails that may lead to an actual project, I put them there. If that project goes anywhere, it gets a folder, within projects, typically with the name of the client or project. All related emails are filed there. But there’s more.

Sometimes a project is broken into sub-projects. For example, my work with E3C has split into a number of different projects. From the blog to video interviews to personal projects, I’ve created subfolders that refer to each aspect. I also created a folder for finances, personal, etc. Now, how do you use them.

You’ve practiced. 10,000 hours. The batting cages. All that jazz. Now it’s time to put your skills to the test. In my seven years working as a call center manager, I think I learned one thing that was actually worth while. Never touch a piece of paper twice. It is a hard and fast rule of the corporate world that you just shouldn’t waste your time with looking at something over and over again. I have amended the rule to read, “never touch anything more than twice”. I modified it because I read every email as it comes in. If it’s easy i.e. requires no response or a simple response, I handle it right then and there and then file or delete the message. If it requires a response that I don’t have time for right now, it stays in the inbox until I can handle it. As such, sometimes you need to touch an email twice.

As soon as an email is dealt with, it gets filed. And there’s a couple of reasons. There first is that you WILL waste time reading that email again. The second, and more dangerous reason, (talking about dangerous emails like I’m some kind of super spy…) is that sometimes an email will actually mark itself as read. You may click on it inadvertently. Sometimes, computers just funk up. But the point is that leaving them in your inbox, or JUST hitting archive, without purposefully filing makes it less likely that you would catch this kind of mistake.

Read your email. Deal with it. Put it away. In the long run it will save you time and headaches. Oh, and don’t use an application that does this for you. Much of the real pleasure (and if you are all compulsive like myself, there really is pleasure to be found in it) is actually completing this yourself. There is a sense of accomplishment found in looking at a totally empty inbox. Then you can read a book or something…