I'm probably not going to say anything new. But I wanted to put down on paper my system for staying on top of email since I so often see people with overflowing inboxes. And I'm not trying to specifically call out anyone I've worked with in the past with an unmanaged inbox. I've known plenty of very productive people who can't stay on top of their email. This is just my solution for taming the crazy.

Every morning when I wake up, I typically have 20 - 30 new emails across my three inboxes. (Personal, Freelance, and Work.) Usually, while standing in the kitchen drinking coffee, I'll open my iPhone email client of choice (Dispatch - it's truly amazing) and switch to the combined "All Inboxes" view. Then...

I read the subject of every email. If I don't know what the email is from the subject, I'll tap and read the body.

Every email is read. Without fail. Nothing is skipped.

For every email, before I move on to the next one, I do one of four things with it:

  • Delete it
  • Send it to spam
  • Archive it
  • Leave it in my inbox in an unread state

Those first three actions should be mostly self-explanatory.

If it's trash, I delete it.

If it's unwanted, I mark it as spam. I know some people will just delete spam emails, but that does yourself a disservice. At least with Gmail, by marking a message as spam, Gmail will learn to mark future similar emails automatically as spam - leaving you with one less email to triage.

If it's a legitimate email that does not require a reply, I archive it. Gmail has blessed us with practically infinite email storage. You never know when you might need to refer to an old email, not matter how mundane, and it's absolutely no bother to archive an email just in case you may one day need it.

With those three options out of the way, that only leaves emails in your inbox that require a response or an action on your part. If an email requires an action, I send it to OmniFocus and then (you guessed it) archive the email.

If the message requires a reply, I leave it in my inbox until later in the day when I have time to reply. And immediately after reply, I archive it.

Throughout the day I'll get new email. I feel no need to check it immediately. When the time is right, I repeat the above process on any new emails.

And during the day when I have time to reply to email, I know every message left in my inbox needs a reply without having to reassess them or make any decisions. Just open an email, reply, and archive.

I follow this routine ruthlessly. The result is a completely manageable and under-control email experience. No emails ever get lost in the shuffle or forgotten. Everyone who needs a reply from me, will get one. And any email that requires an action will be acknowledged.