The Orderly Inbox, a.k.a. “inbox zero” isn’t about always being caught up on all of your work—that’s called a “fantasy”.
Unless you plan on shutting down your email account, you’re going to continue to get more and more emails every day. The problem comes when all of your emails stack on top of each other with no prioritization or organization, creating a never ending, unordered list of demands on your time.
This lack of organization can quickly get out of hand, and before you know it there are thousands of emails just sitting in your inbox and compounding your stress levels.
The Orderly Inbox system is about taking control of your inbox, and implementing a process that will dramatically cut down on the clutter and give you the ability to focus your time and attention on only the messages that matter.
Proper order and prioritization will instantly reduce your inbox-anxiety and end the overwhelm you’ve felt every time you’ve logged into your email.
If you stick with me, not only will you hit inbox zero daily, you’ll save time, and, more importantly your sanity, in the process.
Sounds great, right? But is this utopia even possible? It is, and over the course of this article I’m going to show you how.
First, we’ll develop an organizational system using the built in Labels inside Gmail to label every email that comes into your inbox. This will completely declutter your inbox and make it easy to know exactly where to find any email you’ve ever received.
Next we’ll create a prioritization system, using stars, so you can quickly identify emails that you determine need your attention. This will help separate the work that needs to be done in your inbox from the mindless noise that is filling it up.
With organization and prioritization in place, I’ll walk you through the step-by-step system on how to process your emails and clear your inbox in minutes while simultaneously creating a prioritized list of action items to maximize your time.
After you have everything in place, and the systems become habit, you’re going to wonder how you ever managed your inbox before — and I assure you — you’re never going to go back to the old way of doing things.
It’s time to stop being a slave to your inbox and make your inbox work for you.
Labels: The Key to Organization
Labels are how you organize your emails. You can think of labels as “folders”, and you can nest labels inside of other labels (creating a parent/child relationship). The only difference from traditional folders is that you can assign multiple labels to a single email, which can come in handy in certain situations.
Your first step will be to create your label structure.
If you’re not familiar with how to create labels, here's how.
Top level labels are at the top of your hierarchy, and are more generalized. To get started, I recommend you start with a minimum of 3 top-level labels:
- Business Affairs
Emails that are related to your business like invoices, bills, subscriptions, newsletters, tax information, etc.
Any communication you have with or pertaining to your clients.
Any personal email that is not business related.
You may end up with more than 3 top-level labels, but these are general enough that you can get started and quickly drill down to more specific information.
Within each of these top-level labels, you will create nested labels for further organization and specificity. Let’s take a look at what that might look like for these 3 top-level labels…
Business Affairs Label
In your Business Affairs label, you can create nested labels for things like:
In your Clients label, create a nested-label for each one of your clients. For example:
- Acme Ltd.
- Big Co.
- The Eatery
If you communicate frequently, or have multiple projects with a customer, you might create nested labels within each one of your customer’s nested-label for specific projects. For example:
- Acme Ltd.
- Big Co.
- Change Requests
- The Eatery
Create categories for different personal emails you receive. For example:
Yes, you are going to create a very large number of labels — and that’s okay! Adding labels does not cost you anything, and it will only further your organization so long as you use a system of labels and nested labels that follow a logical hierarchy.
You’ll learn as you progress through this system the level of specificity that is right for you. It’s easy to add labels in the future, and likely something that you will continue to improve over time.
But before you can apply a label to an email, you’ll need to first make a determination about the email.
Does this email require action on my part?
Stars: Determining What Requires Action
When you boil it down, there are two kinds of emails that land in your inbox: those that require your response or action, and those that don’t.
In a typical inbox this is nearly impossible to decipher, which is where the overwhelm and inbox-anxiety set in — you’re left asking yourself how you’re ever going to get to all these emails!
But, if you spend time analyzing everything that comes through your inbox, you’ll quickly realize that only a small percentage require action on your part — and this is great news!
The star system is a simple way to quickly identify the emails that require your time from those that can just as easily be mentally noted and filed away.
Any email that gets a star appears in the “Starred” folder — regardless of any label (or labels) that have been applied. This means that instead of sifting through an endless list of emails that may or may not require your attention, you have a dedicated list of only what you need to action.
Because starring emails is a 1-click operation, you can quickly process your emails and clear your incoming emails.
Setting Up Your Star System
The star system can be as simple as a binary choice between “star” and “no star”, or you can decide to use the 4-star system which will provide some hierarchy to your action items.
If you don’t know how to turn certain stars on or off in Gmail, here's how.
Let’s take a look at both systems so you can decide which is right for you.
Option 1: Binary Star System
The easiest star system is the binary choice of “star” or “no star”. If an email requires any action, you’ll give it a star. If the email does not require action, no star is added and it is filed away by its label.
This keeps things simple and makes sorting and processing your email as easy as possible. This is a good place to start… However, if you find that your Starred folder is filling up quickly, or there are more actionable emails in a day then you can handle, you might consider assigning priorities to your stars, which you can do through the 4-star system.
Option 2: 4-Star System
If you want to give more order to your starred folder, you can deploy the 4-Star System. Instead of a simple “yes” or “no” star, you can apply different stars that correspond with different actions that need to be taken.
Though Gmail will give you the ability to use up to 12 different stars (each with their own icon or color), I’ve found the sweet-spot to be these 4.
- Blue Star
The blue star is the most general star. This could simply mean a reply or action is required.
- Red Exclamation
The red exclamation is used to prioritize your star. Anything with the red exclamation takes priority over any other starred items.
- Purple Question Mark
You’ll use the purple question mark to signal that the action needed is unclear, or will take research. These are typically actions that are going to require more time.
- Orange Arrows
Orange arrows are used to identify emails that are going to require another person’s actions or input (something that cannot be done alone).
The 4-Star System is particularly useful if you have more starred emails than you can action in any given day. By giving each starred email a more specific identifier you can save time by actioning things in batches where it makes sense.
Workflow: Processing Your Inbox
Now that you understand how you’re going to prioritize your emails (using the Star system), and how you’re going to organize them, let’s look at how all this comes together in practice.
Where you’re going to get the most out of this strategy by saving time and relieving overwhelm, is by quickly “processing” all of your incoming emails.
The processing process is meant to be done quickly — and the more you do it, the faster you’ll get at it.
Once you login to your email, follow these simple steps to process your emails:
- Delete any obvious junk (anything you don’t need for records)
- Star any emails you know will require action
- Label all the emails
It’s vital that you follow this order. Once an email is labeled it is removed from your inbox. That’s fine for the emails we just need for records, but what about the emails we need to action?
By staring them before we label them, we ensure that they go straight to our starred folder so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
You’ll find that in many cases, you can process your emails without ever having to open them completely. Often the sender’s name and subject line is enough for you to know if it’s trash, actionable, or simply for record keeping.
Process all of the emails that you can determine their fate without opening them up first. Chances are you’ll clear out the majority of your inbox by the time you finish this quick sorting.
Once the easy wins are out of the way you can open the remaining emails and quickly scan them to determine if they need to be deleted, starred, or simply filed away.
Once this process is completed, your inbox will be empty.
Welcome to inbox zero!
Workflow: Working from Your Starred Folder
You’re going to realize quickly how much easier it is to work out of your starred folder than it was that messy inbox.
First of all, you know that all the emails in your Starred folder require your attention. It’s almost like a lightweight task tool listing out all the things you need to get done — with zero distractions.
Now, obviously, I can’t tell you how to respond to emails to perform the actions you’ll need to take in any scenario—but I do have a few tips on how you can work from your Starred folder with better efficiency.
Tip #1: Order of Operations
If you’re using the 4-Star system, it’s advantageous to work through your Starred folder in a particular order:
- Red Exclamation
Start with any items marked with a Red Exclamation. These are the items you’ve identified have the highest priority, so it’s best to get started here.
- Orange Arrows
Go ahead and take care of anything labeled with an Orange Arrow next, as these items are going to require a 3rd party and you’ll be adding time to these tasks to get the other person (or people) involved.
- Blue Star
As your most general label, the blue star items will likely be the most common, and you can often find some quick wins here!
- Purple Question Mark
Finish by tackling your emails labeled with the Purple Question Mark. Typically these items are going to take some more time to complete. It’s a less daunting task to undertake once everything else has been completed.
Tip #2: When to Unstar
The purpose of your Starred folder is to give you a list of emails that require your attention — but what about when you’re done with them?
Generally, you’ll want to unstar an email once you’ve taken the required action and no further action is needed on your part. Oftentimes I’ll unstar an email once I’ve replied to it and there’s nothing else for me to do until my recipient responds again.
Since you’ve already labeled your email, when you unstar it, it will immediately leave your Starred folder and be tucked away safely in whichever label(s) you applied to it.
If you can’t immediately action an email you can leave it starred and come back to it later. I’ll usually mark the starred items that I can’t action as “read” so that I have a visual queue that lets me know those items aren’t ready for me.
Tip #3: Audit Your Starred Folder Regularly
The whole purpose of your Starred folder is to only have a list of emails that you need to action. If you are not unstarring emails when you’ve finished then you’re going to defeat the purpose.
At a minimum you should be auditing your Starred folder weekly to make sure there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be and that any of the items you’ve had to delay haven’t been forgotten.
However, I try to do this daily when I open my inbox for the first time. It just takes a quick minute to go through your Starred folder and make things are in order before you get going.
Keeping a strict routine will help reduce your anxiety and lessen your workload!
Follow These 3 Rules
Now that you’ve learned how to organize your inbox, prioritize your actionable items, and work from your Starred folder, I just want to go through the three most important rules you need to follow in order to make all of this work.
I fully expect you’ll make tweaks to the Orderly Inbox system—that’s fine! But be careful before you make any changes that break any of these three rules. Without these three things in place, you’ll find yourself back in the disorderly inbox you had before!
Rule #1: The Inbox is for Sorting Mail.
The first rule is simple, your inbox is not a place to “work” out of — it is a sorting station.
Think of this outside of your computer screen, and in terms of the physical world.
Imagine you walk to your mailbox, and you have 20 new letters. You pull out the one on top and take action. This one is for your spouse, so you walk back inside, and it to them and return to your mailbox.
The next item is a sales flyer — so you walk inside the house and put it in the trash and return to your inbox.
Finally, the third one is a long letter from a friend. You go inside, read it, and reply to the letter. You have to find an envelope, fill it in, place a stamp, and return it to the outgoing mail.
3 down, only 17 to go!
Imagine the time this would take! By the time you finish your stack, it might be time for the mail carrier to come by again!
But unlike your mailbox, which gets deliveries once a day, your inbox is constantly being bombarded with new messages.
Trying to action each item as it comes in is a fool's errand.
Your inbox is for sorting mail only. The time you spend in your inbox with incoming mail has one purpose: to put it where it belongs.
You’ll see when we put these systems into action just how dramatically this rule alone will change the way your inbox works forever.
My only exception to this rule is simple: If actioning the email would take less time than processing it, then go ahead and action it.
An example of this could be something like replying with a confirmation: “Got it! Thank you!”. It would only take a couple seconds to hit reply and type that message, so it would be quicker to action that before you sort it.
I caution you to be careful breaking this rule… The further you bend it, the close you get to having an unruly inbox!
Rule #2: Status Before Label
When sorting your email, the first decision you need to make is “does this require an action?”. If the email requires a reply or for you to follow the message with some sort of action, then you must apply a star.
Once you’ve determined whether the email requires a star, then you can apply a label.
The order of this operation is crucial.
When you apply a label to an email, you automatically remove that email from your inbox and place it inside the label “folder”. If the email requires action, there’s a good chance it gets lost since it’s being marked as unread and filed away.
Rule #3: Work from Your Starred Folder
Because we’ve already determined with Rule #1 that your inbox is for sorting only, and any email that requires action gets a star applied, then the only place you’ll need to “work” out of is your starred folder.
Because you’re following the system of sorting and starring, the only emails that require your attention will be in the starred folder.
It’s going to take retraining your brain a bit to make this habit, but anytime you find yourself working from you inbox, quickly correct yourself.
After re-reading this post, it's become apparent that a 3,000 word article might make this seem more complex than it really is.
To help show you how simple the Orderly Inbox system can be, I've put together a quick video that will walk you through how it works with a real-life example of an inbox and how I would process, sort, and action my emails.