Oh, the moans you hear from people about their email accounts. "I have 50 gajillion messages in my inbox ... and that's just from today!" But that doesn't compare with the moans I illicit from colleagues when I tell them that my inbox is empty.

"I could never do that," someone—maybe you—will inevitably complain. I understand, as I used to say the same thing. However, I was wrong, and so are you. The Zen part? This is something that you shouldn't bother to try to "understand." Just do it and learn that the most useful email is that which isn't there.

1. A place for everything

The biggest problem that people have with email is the desire to be rid of it, but the nagging feeling that they'll delete something they need. Don't worry. How often do you actually look at old emails? Chances are, it's a rare event, so you're not likely to royally screw something up.

Create a set of folders on your email system to handle what you keep. Anything that is a waste—the spam pitch for pumping your septic system or the less-than-funny set of jokes that Auntie Rhoda passed on—goes into the trash. Messages that you might conceivably want go into the appropriate folder.

Find a structure that works for you, remembering that you can change it as time goes on. For example, I use multiple inbox subfolders for companies and people that I often hear from. I also have a work-in-progress folder that has a subfolder for each current project.

2. Use your archive feature

Eventually the amount of email you can collect gets overwhelming. That's why you also have a running archive file. Anything that isn't likely to be needed in a few minutes goes into the archive, which is like cold storage.

You periodically move large amounts of emails into the archives. When I'm done with a project in the work-in-progress file, it goes into the archive. Every now and then, I use Outlook's archiving feature to ship out lots of older emails. Off they go: still available, but out of the way.

Archive files can get mighty big. In that case, create a new one (make the range of dates it covers part of the name so it's easier to remember which to use), open it in the email program, and close the old archive. You can always open an older archive as needed.

3. Use indexing software

Your folder structure should let you at least get to the right general area to find an email, at which point you search through the folder for the appropriate keywords. If you can't remember where you put something, don't worry. Use indexing software. (I still have Google Desktop installed, although it's sadly no longer available.) Then you can search across your entire hard drive, specify that you want to look at emails, and work your way through what comes up. It might seem like a lot—just try narrowing the search with more terms and/or remember that it's nothing compared to facing Web search engine results.

4. Commit to a method

Email is like old-fashioned paper that hits a basket in your office, except it takes up less room on the desk. Unfortunately, it can take up entirely too much mental energy and create anxiety.

The simple and effective solution is the "touch everything once" approach that time management training would have you do with paper. Set aside a couple of times a day to go through email. With each message, take the following actions:

  • Briefly read the header and first line or two to know what it is about.
  • Respond then if you must or indicate when you'll respond.
  • If you plan to respond later and you use Outlook, drop the email on the Tasks section and set a reminder to handle it later on.
  • If it helps document something you're doing or is potentially useful down the line, file the email immediately so it's out of your inbox.
  • If you don't need it, dump it.

Make sure you do this all the time going forward.

5. Bite the bullet

You knew this was coming. You will have to plow through your entire inbox to get to a state of zero messages. It might take an hour, but it's well worth the investment in time. Remember, if the message is about a dated topic, dump it. If it's worth keeping, file. Reply if necessary (though if it's been hanging around for days or weeks, it probably isn't).

Now all you have to do is keep up with the process every day. You'll find it to be a short amount of time that leaves you smiling when you bring up your email program.