Just firing up your email app makes your shoulders seize up. And excitement for that upcoming vacation is marred by the thought of being welcomed home by thousands of unanswered emails.

If reading and responding to emails leaves you exhausted and oppressed, it's time to get your inbox under control.

This Doesn't Work

If you're like most people, you click on specific messages to see what's going on. Sometimes, you reply. Sometimes you mark something as read. Other messages you read then close, possibly "star," them with the intention of coming back to them later on.

This doesn't work because you almost never get to go back to them. Meanwhile, new emails arrive that push the older ones deeper down the list... and farther away from your consciousness.

As your inbox gets cluttered and jammed full, so does your mind. And all those untended emails nag the back of your mind like the Sword of Damocles.

No wonder you can't focus. No wonder messages fall through the cracks. No wonder you're stressed out.

Change the Way You Think of Your Inbox

Two simple paradigm shifts can have a tectonic impact on your inbox:

Paradigm Shift #1: Email shouldn't stay in your inbox.

Think of your inbox as your kitchen counter and an inbox full of new messages as a big bag of groceries. You wouldn't leave those groceries on the counter, would you?

No, you'd put the perishables in the fridge, canned goods in the cupboard, sugar and flour in the pantry. You get the idea.

So why do you leave all those emails in your inbox? Put them away!

Paradigm Shift #2. It's better to search than to sort.

Once upon a time, you had to sort each email into some kind of elaborate folder structure. But those days are long gone.

The best way to "put away" email these days is, as soon as you've dealt with it, archive it.

Now, don't worry, the message isn't gone. You can find it whenever you want by using the email app's search function.

Put These Paradigm Shifts to Work

How do you apply these foundational paradigms? I like to borrow a framework my friend Ari Meisel describes in his book, Less Doing, More Living.

Whenever you sit to check your emails, you've got to do something about each email.

As a side note, turn off your email notifications and don't check for new emails every five minutes. Block out, say 30 minutes at a time, and check email only 2-3 times a day.

Now when you're looking at a new email, immediately do one of the following:

Deal with it

If it will only take 1-3 minutes, then go ahead and respond to the email. Then archive it.

Delete it

If there's no action for you take on the email, then get rid of it by archiving it. In effect, you "delete" the email from your inbox but you'll still be able to find it later on if you need to.

Defer it

Now if you need to respond to an email, but you can't do it at this exact moment, then you can defer it in one of several ways:

  • Move it to a To-Do folder
  • Add the email to Gmail Tasks (or a similar feature in your email app)
  • Email it to your Asana account, to turn it into a task
  • Use Boomerang, a free plugin, to send the email back to you on a future date

By following the above steps, your emails will stop accumulating in your inbox.

Where To Go From Here

From now on, act on every piece of email to remove it from your inbox: Deal with it, Delete (archive) it, or Defer it. Whatever you do with your new emails, don't let them sit in your inbox!

And what about the backlog of emails in your inbox?

Pick a threshold or period when emails of a certain age just aren't important anymore. For example, take all the emails older than six weeks (or whatever threshold you choose), mark them as read, and archive them.

For the remaining emails, put them away, once and for all.

This may take a few hours, but before you know it, you've achieved Inbox Zero.

Your inbox--as well as your mind--has become uncluttered. You can breathe easy now and enjoy email again.